Stretching all learners to fulfil maths potential

|4 min read

Editor’s Note:

This is an updated version of a blog post published on September 14, 2018

Whether struggling or advanced, every learner has the potential to do great things. Help them get there by providing stretch and challenge in your lessons.

When it comes to maths teaching, some believe that advanced learners are not being challenged enough and are becoming bored and disillusioned. Of course, this is an issue, but then so are labels like ‘most able’ or ‘gifted’ — terms we always try to avoid.

While some children display flashes of genius in maths class, putting them on a pedestal only adds pressure and singles children out.

Say no to labels: all learners have maths potential

All learners are special, and when it comes to maths, there’s no such thing as being extra-special.

It might seem like certain people are born with maths superpowers, but these abilities are not out of reach for everyone else. Maths ability isn’t absolute — it can stay the same, it can decline, or it can go through the roof.

Giving a child a label like ‘most able’ is dangerous. Teachers can end up teaching to the label. As the 2017 GL Assessment report Hooked On Labels, Not On Need says:

“Teachers should be offering high quality, differentiated teaching for all pupils and not waiting until the pupil gets the label.”

Maths ability can change, and learners need to know that they can improve. In maths, understanding is in a constant state of flux. Sometimes this looks like a slight jolt, other times, a tectonic shift.

In an inclusive maths mastery environment, labelling learners by ability can damage their self-confidence. Labels twist expectations and give learners a false sense of who they are. Labels limit learning because they don’t focus on the whole child.

In short, it’s essential to go into teaching with the mindset that every learner has maths potential so you can commit to high-quality inclusive teaching.

How to provide stretch and challenge for all maths learners

When you challenge learners, they become motivated and enjoy their maths. All learners have potential, so look for ways to provide stretch and challenge for everyone.

Catering for learners working at very different levels is tough. What pushes one learner might not provide much of a stretch for another. So, how do you extend tasks to challenge everyone in your classroom? Well, here’s five ways to get you started.

1. Start small

By starting small with one basic question and adjusting the level of the problem as you see fit (without changing the format) you give learners the same thinking challenge, but at a level that suits their needs. You could also take the same core maths question and alter it to involve working backwards or add more steps.

2. Ask open-ended questions

One of the most effective ways of stretching learners is to provide open-ended maths problems that allow for multiple responses and perspectives. Instead of making numbers bigger or making content harder, use unfamiliar or unusual tasks to challenge learners’ thinking and change the structure of routine questions.

3. Ask them to prove it

Instead of asking learners to explain the steps they went through, ask them to prove why a different answer is wrong. Give learners maths questions that follow a similar structure and ask them to describe the similarities, differences and how they are connected.

4. Design more complex questions

Looking for extension ideas that don’t require hours of planning? Challenge all learners by choosing problems with more than one answer or that have more than one route to the solution. Try to pick tasks that learners can’t solve quickly to encourage them to work together and learn from each other.

5. Make activities SHINE

Follow the advice of super-teacher Nick Tiley-Nunn and create maths activities that SHINE.

Social: collaborative, discussion-based and with plenty of maths talk
Hued: not beige but colourful and varied
Interlinked: presenting ideas as connected and cross-curricular
Nerve-building: designed to build maths resilience
Energetic: they have to be active and interactive

Maths should be fun, challenging and most importantly, should make all children think. For learners with high potential — aka everyone — solving new problems, adapting to new situations, trying to find a pattern and modelling real-life situations are essential skills you should promote every week of the year.