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'You've probably never heard of it, but the Shell Centre has been setting the standard for maths education for decades'

One teaching resources centre celebrates half a century of creating magical maths resources, and looks forward to the next 50 years

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One teaching resources centre celebrates half a century of creating magical maths resources, and looks forward to the next 50 years

Teachers and resources go together like magpies and shiny things. Whether physical objects, booklets, sets of worksheets, applets or sites, we collect, we recommend and we hoard, knowing (at least after a few years) that to create everything from scratch is a bad idea. Sometimes, happening upon something lovely, we feel like a child at the beach again.

And so, to the aptly named Shell Centre at the University of Nottingham, where a group of educational designers has been working quietly away on its own treasures for 50 years – treasures it has given to the mathematics teaching community for free throughout this time.

You may have seen or used many of these resources without even knowing their provenance, fitting as they do so smoothly into the glittering mosaic of bright mathematical resources that we pass on to one another in the "have you heard of?" model of teaching communities.

The joy of such a long and prolific history is that you may well also have worked on some of these mathematics materials as a student as well as a teacher. This year the Shell Centre, as an institution, celebrated a truly astonishing 50 years of work that has had an impact both in the UK and overseas, particularly most recently in the United States.

What sets these materials apart from some of their counterparts is the remarkable model of design, testing and evaluation that has built bridges between maths teachers and educational designers across the entire five decades. The strong and active support of teachers in their classrooms has been central to the work of the Shell Centre from the outset, with recent outputs including toolkits to support professional learning. In recent years, the team has worked to develop tools to support senior leaders in their work in implementing change at a system level, as well as collaborative groups of teachers working to jointly improve their classroom practice.

Shell Centre classroom tasks, however, are perhaps what have become best known to teachers over the years. These have always been carefully designed to support formative assessment, ensuring teachers are well-informed throughout their lessons about students’ understanding of mathematics. Shell Centre materials have, therefore, always drawn on research from the wider field of mathematics education – as well as having been informed by cycles of action research in which comprehensive trials have been undertaken in classrooms, conducted by a huge number of teacher colleagues over the past half-century.

The careful and detailed work that has informed Shell Centre products has resulted in classic collections of resources such as the blue (Problems with Patterns and Number) and red (The Language of Functions and Graphs) boxes, and the Standards Unit (Improving Learning in Mathematics) box.

Maths teaching around the world

Much of this work was led in terms of design by Malcolm Swan, who from 1979 through to his recent illness and death, worked together with his close friend and colleague, Hugh Burkhardt, to ensure their increasing knowledge of research and design expertise truly supported learners and teachers of mathematics at the chalkface. Recently, in 2016, their individual contributions and achievements over time – as well as of their wider team of colleagues – were recognised at an international level through the award of the Emma Castelnuovo Medal by the International Commission on Mathematical Instruction. Malcolm’s contribution over the years was immense and underpinned many of the team’s outputs in terms of not only the mathematics, but also the detail of his provision of appropriate and amusing illustrations.

Mathematics teachers, designers and researchers came together recently at a conference at the University of Nottingham to celebrate this wonderful achievement. The conference brought together many of the Shell Centre team from past, present and, potentially, future with current designers, providing a glimpse into some of their work that exemplified an aspect of which they are proud. The examples they drew upon made everyone there reconsider the careful detail that goes into the design of assessment, curriculum and professional learning, all of which interact in the complex ecosystem of schools and classrooms.

But this conference was not just about looking backwards. A glittering firmament of colleagues from around the world – including some of education’s most eminent voices – joined the team to both celebrate Shell Centre achievements and explore how research and design such as theirs might best inform future policy developments in mathematics education.

Professor Paul Black, perhaps best known as an international expert in formative assessment, commented: “It’s so rewarding to hear such a wide range of high-level discussions here.” 

Phil Daro, from the writing team of the US Common Core Standards, remarked: ”I find it both fascinating and important to see the chasm between what we know from research and evidence – and how we get things done.”

The Shell Centre has also become known as a meeting place for those really interested in contributing to research-informed design at every level.

It is perhaps noticeable that the work of the Shell Centre has become increasingly recognised and focused beyond the confines of the UK  – particularly in the USA, where there have been more than 7 million downloads of the lessons of the Mathematics Assessment Project. Another important role that the Shell Centre has played is in setting up the International Society for Design and Development in Education (ISDDE), which is focused on the highest international standards of design in both mathematics and science education.

The team at Shell continues to work on projects in the United States and Australia, as well as on home territory here in the UK – and looks forward to the next 50 years of creating gems for teachers.

Lucy Rycroft-Smith works in communications and research for Cambridge Mathematics and Professor Geoff Wake is professor of mathematics education at the University of Nottingham 

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