Saturday, 19 August 2017

Permission to slow down :)

We have been thinking deeply about the teaching of maths at our school.  In the last two years in particular we have transformed the way we do things, simply by being open to change.  The work of Jo Boaler has been revolutionary for us and transformative for our learners.  We only wish we had embarked on this journey sooner.

We would have said three years ago that we taught maths pretty well.  In fact the data would have backed this up, with almost 100% of our learners at their required stage each year.  However as we all know, children are not data, and regardless of the brilliant levels they were achieving, their mathematical mindsets were probably not quite where they should have been.  This is probably because ours were not either.  We streamed our classes from Year 2 up, we used timed tests, and we were pretty conscious of coverage.  The message we were sending to children about what maths is were misguided and unfortunately quite damaging.

I look back on this with dismay, aware of the learners that may not have achieved well in this environment.  Sadly we were doing what we thought worked well, the data showed we were doing a good job and the simple truth is we knew no better.

If asked I would have said that my teachers and myself were good teachers of maths.  I would not have been lying, but this judgment is very dependent on what you class as good and what you believe in terms of teaching mathematics.

The turning point for us was maths PLD and the massive lightbulb that was the work of Jo Boaler.  Has our data changed, no, it has always been good.  What has and is changing are the mathematical mindsets of our children and ourselves.  Do I care about our data, no not really.

The biggest change has been the elimination of any testing that will cause more timed testing that is for sure.  Secondly we no longer stream, we each have our own classes and use mixed ability groupings throughout.  Thirdly we use problems to develop knowledge and strategy in creative ways and are not afraid to repeat the same lesson in different ways several times over.  We have also redefined what a high achiever is in maths, it is not those that can come up with an answer quickly, but it is those that can take their time and see a problem in a variety of ways and persist to a solution even when it seems impossible.  We need to embrace mistakes and help children see how vital they are.  We also need to not be afraid of not getting a session quite where we wanted it each day, or worry if we didn't quite get the 'right' answer.

It is the third point that I want to touch on.  I am frequently asked about planning and coverage.  We seem to have a system that convinces us we must cover everything to ensure we are doing a good job.  This thinking often leads us to over plan, and aim to simply 'teach' to much.  This leads to frustration for us when we don't get everything done and also means we rush learning so we can get onto the next thing we have planned.

My learning over the past year in particular has shown me that the less I aim to teach and focus on each session, the better the session is.  The more I touch on the same concept, often in the same way, the deeper the understandings I am able to build in my agents and the more success they have, the more confidence they have.

If you think about it from your own perspective for a moment the more times you come back to the same task or learning opportunity, the more opportunities you have to see it and come at it in different ways, the more opportunities you  have to talk about it,  the deeper your understanding is and the more success you have.  This deep understanding allows you to make stronger connections and has a flow on effect to new learning.

This is the same for children, the more they are able to come back to the same activity, the same learning, the more they develop their understandings, the more likely they are to firmly consolidate their learning and be able to use it in different ways.  They are then likely to use these understandings to assist them in future challenging situations.

For ourselves as teachers I think we need to stop over-planning.  We need to slow down and perhaps revisit the same session over a few days.  Perhaps even allowing a problem to span over a few days.  If we do this the coverage will come naturally and be much more authentic.

I know across many  of our classrooms now teachers are using low floor, high ceiling problems in this way.

So my challenge for everyone is to explore ways they can slow down.  To allow children time to explore and revisit problems in deeper ways.  Slowing down and allowing ourselves and our children time also allows for more time to talk.  Maths is all about communication.  The more opportunities children have to share, convince, explain, question and even coach their peers, the deeper their learning will be.

I think if we can consciously keep this in mind we can help our children to become confident, capable mathematicians that see maths for what it is, patterns, relationships, connections that are all around us.  If we are able to give them this, then all that knowledge will suddenly have a place and make real sense.

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