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Reframing ‘disadvantaged’ as ‘underserved’ in mathematics education professional development design

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This article explores how professional development (PD) can be used as a vehicle for promoting more equitable, responsive teaching. The PD model presented is defined as a ‘Research and Innovation Work Group’ (RIWG), commissioned by the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM) and containing three essential elements: innovation culture, research culture and collaborative culture (NCETM, 2022).

All three strands are used collectively to support a cycle of contemplation, interrogation and reflection on current practice, where participants are encouraged to develop questions rather than seek out firm answers. From a PD design position, there are three main aims: 

  • to model a ‘researcher mindset’, synthesising research and practice with regard to a specific setting
  • to equip participants with tools to encourage practitioner research after engaging in PD with us
  • to invite participants to challenge their perceptions of their most vulnerable learners, through careful considerations about how we position and talk about leaners.


The RIWG was titled ‘Equity, “disadvantage” and making mathematical connections’. This article will consider the potential successes and challenges of a purposeful shift in language during professional discussions.


The participants came from a variety of teaching and leadership backgrounds in both primary and secondary settings. The case study drawn upon in this article is the ‘live lesson research’ aspect of the RIWG, where the participants, drawing on Barclay’s (2021) ‘Valid and valuable’, collaboratively planned for a live research lesson to observe and evaluate the findings of the research in action. The live research lesson model was based on Takahashi and McDougal’s (2016) Lesson Study. The first stage included reading research and sharing our own professional experiences to gain a collective understanding around equitable mathematics teaching practices (reconnaissance). As a result of this reconnaissance, we collaboratively planned a live research lesson. 

On the day of the live research lesson, there was a pre- and post-lesson discussion. One teacher delivered the lesson in their own Year 4 (age eight to nine) classroom, while the other practitioners observed. The lesson designed was standalone but sat within the broader unit of work on multiples and factors, and featured the activity ‘Spaceship’ from the book Mathematical Challenges for Able Pupils (DfEE, 2000, p. 45). 

Following on from the lesson, there was a post-lesson discussion, where we discussed the successes and challenges in our design, evaluated the translation of research and considered our second phase of reconnaissance.

Contemplation: Responding to the word ‘disadvantaged underserved’ in PD design 

As a result of reading, our own values and inspiration from a 2022 speech by Olivia Taylor (who identifies as an underserved young person), we chose to reposition ‘disadvantaged learners’ as ‘underserved learners’. 

I think thinking of a child as “disadvantaged” treats them like they are lacking somewhat in themselves. And that it’s like a permanent state of being… So, if I don’t like the word “disadvantaged” what do I use? I personally use the word “underserved”. Which points the emphasis back onto the society to help young people from challenging backgrounds. Rather than a young person having to work to overcome “disadvantage”, a society must learn how to serve them. Words really do have power.

(Taylor, 2022)

The mathematical education of underserved learners is particularly relevant at present, since the impact of lost learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic has been highlighted in several reports, such as that from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF, 2021). Choudry’s (2021) book Equitable Education outlines the significant attainment gaps between learners labelled as having free school meals – which has become a proxy indicator for learners from ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ – and their more affluent peers.

Further to this, Wiliams and Choudry (2016) suggest that educational provision in mathematics needs to challenge the orthodoxy of certain models of learning, such as streaming and differentiating learning based on ability, that tend to reproduce as opposed to resist educational inequalities, limiting the access of underserved learners (Boaler, 2016); this has been the topic of multiple NCETM blogs, such as Morgan’s (2022) article entitled ‘No need to differentiate in primary school maths lessons’.

Our live research lesson and the professional discussions that encased it acted as an opportunity for participants to consider equitable access to rich experiences and interactions in order to deisolate ‘underserved’ learners, by encouraging them to make explicit mathematical connections while navigating unfamiliar mathematical situations. As practitioners, our language in our professional discussion continued to evolve, using ‘mixed experience’ as opposed to ‘mixed ability’ or even ‘mixed attainment’ groupings. In addition to a heightened consciousness about the language that we used, we actively sorted out research that rejected deficit views of underserved learners, inviting readers to position their lower-attaining (differently experienced) learners as active contributors to mixed-experience pairings through their mathematical noticing (Barclay, 2021).

Interrogation: Spotlighting research

Our research library included a wealth of research and publications centred around more equitable classroom practice, such as Trundley’s (2015) work on improving equity through pre-teaching and Watson’s Care in Mathematics Education (2021). Our spotlight research was Barclay’s ‘Valid and valuable’ (2021), where we drew out some of the main principles to support access to rich mathematical experiences and interactions during whole-class teaching. After reconnaissance, we then planned a live research lesson collaboratively, deciding what to ‘take’ from the research and what to ‘tweak’ based on our own professional knowledge, where one participant acted as the model teacher for this lesson, focusing on four underserved learners.

Principles drawn out from Barclay (2021):

  1. Task: From Mathematical Challenges for Able Pupils (DfEE, 2000), we chose a rich mathematical task centred around reasoning (Nunes et al., 2009) that enabled noticing and connection-making, in an attempt to further reject deficit narratives historically linked with ‘disadvantage’ and ‘ability’. 
  2. Mixed-experience pairings: With the support of the model teacher, we thought carefully about collaboration at a learner level and carved out opportunities for both learners to contribute to the pairing. We invited participants, while observing the lesson, to consider their underserved learners as differently experienced, as opposed to differently abled (Gripton and Williams, 2023). 
  3. Manipulatives: We used Numicon© as the key representation to highlight the odd and even quality of the numbers in the ‘Spaceship’ activity. It was many of the learners’ first experience of Numicon©, so we thought about how to support them with this unfamiliar mathematical experience through ‘having a play around’, and we created Numicon© tracks to scaffold the task. 
  4. Teacher questioning: We thought of careful and familiar teacher questioning that promoted noticing, such as: What did you notice? Did you notice what X noticed? Did you notice something different? What is the same? What is different? 
  5. Sentence starters: The sentence starter ‘I noticed that…’ was promoted throughout the lesson as a springboard to draw out thinking from all learners, where all noticing was valid.


Reflection: Time to reflect

On the day of the lesson, we engaged in a pre-lesson discussion around the task, learners and our observation interests. During the lesson, we observed the focus learners, where each participant had a particular interest in mind, such as non-verbal communication, dynamics of mixed-experience pairings or oracy. In the post-lesson discussion, participants were able to draw on Barclay’s (2021) work and notice what the learners contributed to the pairings. One participant noticed that a learner noticed something that no one else did, including the adults in the room: the smiles of the creatures in the task. 

She did notice that the smiling one had two legs, which nobody else did… like that initial bit of reading we did, which said that those children are more likely to do the noticing that other children won’t do.

This discussion encouraged delegates to reflect on how they interact with and serve their own learners, and what we could do differently as practitioners to better facilitate a culture where learners value each other’s responses.

A word is not enough

However, one participant responded in a feedback survey stating that they didn’t see how using different language (‘underserved’ rather than ‘disadvantaged’) was very useful. To a certain extent, we agree. Just deciding to change how we speak about underserved learners and not being active in serving them is not enough. We hope that our choice and use of language throughout the PD design was not tokenistic but rather a signifier of our values as practitioners, which ran through each element of the PD design, including:

  • the research with which we chose to engage during reconnaissance
  • how we positioned underserved learners as competent mathematical thinkers and noticers
  • how we challenged the orthodoxy of certain mathematics learning practices (Williams and Choudry, 2016), such as setting and streaming
  • how we validated learner responses and appreciated their mathematical thinking through interactions.


Ultimately, we believe that actively using the language of ‘underserved’ acted as a reminder to reflect on our own biases and perceptions in order to assist the development of a more authentic model of responsive teaching.

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