A study of teaching assistants' engagement with a mathematics block of learning

Crisp, Martin Timothy Palmer (2017). A study of teaching assistants' engagement with a mathematics block of learning. EdD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.0000c132


This study explores the learning experiences of students on a four-week block on mathematics as part of The Open University’s Foundation Degree for primary teaching assistants. The key research questions seek to identify the outcomes and processes of the teaching assistants’ study in relation to their work ‘supporting’ children’s mathematical learning, and their wider experience as teaching assistants.

The study adopts an interpretivist, constructivist approach based on an illuminative evaluation framework (Parlett & Hamilton, 1972). A questionnaire gathered data from 67 students to provide a broad picture of their experience during the block. Progressively focused telephone interviews were carried out with nine students using their written assignments, online forum posts and questionnaire responses as prompts to discussion. From the literature review I identified two potentially relevant areas of theory, in particular, Harland & Kinder’s (1997) ordering of INSET outcomes, and Lave & Wenger’s (1991) theory of ‘legitimate peripheral participation’.

All nine teaching assistants identified positive outcomes from their study relating to their practice, in particular their increased confidence in mathematics as a subject, and ability to work with children in a fine-grained way to the extent that many aspects of their practice might be more accurately characterised as teaching rather than ‘supporting’ learning. A key finding concerned the ways in which the teaching assistants’ study enabled them to develop agency as practitioners, and strengthened their participation in the professional life of their school. The study brought out how issues surrounding the learning of mathematics sometimes heightened the extent to which this occurred. Harland & Kinder’s hierarchy of INSET outcomes and the notion of legitimate peripheral participation were found to be helpful concepts for understanding the outcomes of the block of study on the work of teaching assistants, but were both identified as insufficiently nuanced to adequately characterise the diversity and complexity of their varied roles and individual career trajectories.

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