Stuck in the middle? Here’s how to help middle learners reach their potential

|4 min read

So often, as teachers, we focus on our ‘advanced’ and ‘struggling’ learners, but what about everybody else? Middle learners also need to be supported and challenged in order to reach their full potential.

We tend to spend much of our time supporting learners who face the greatest challenges or stretching those who are ready to take on more.

As teachers, we need to make sure we also devote enough of our efforts to learners in the middle, those who work steadily through tasks but who may be reluctant to speak out or contribute to whole-class discussions.

Here are some suggestions for how to support middle learners.

A mastery approach helps all learners engage

One of the best ways to support middle learners is to encourage them to contribute. With a mastery approach, you are engaging learners right from the start.

Try starting your lesson with an anchor task that can be explored in different ways. Then encourage engagement by asking questions, such as:

  • Should you use concrete resources or pictorial representations to illustrate your thinking?
  • Can you explain your thinking to others?

Observing and working with learners as they explore gives you valuable information about how they think and the depth of their understanding.

Encourage learners to explain their thinking

In a mastery approach, a learner’s ability to explain their mathematical thinking is crucial. Maths is about more than just right or wrong — it’s not enough to be able to answer a question — it’s more important to know how you arrived at the answer.

Once children learn and understand that there are many ways to approach a question, their resilience and confidence grows. They will learn that if there are many ways to tackle a problem, their ideas have a good chance of being successful.

This will encourage learners who may previously have lacked the confidence to answer questions to come out of their shell and participate far more readily.

Help less-confident learners participate

Every class I’ve ever taught has a few lively characters keen to share their ideas and I’ve had to work hard to make sure they don’t take over. One way to tackle this is to create a classroom culture where everyone is expected to participate in discussions.

However, for the more-quiet, less-confident learners, this can be daunting! We know that maths anxiety affects a high proportion of learners — some studies report up to 60% — so we need to find a balance between participation and panic!

You can ease this worry by giving learners a chance to prepare and rehearse their ideas in a safe space before sharing them with the rest of the class. When I observed maths teaching in Shanghai, learners were encouraged to whisper their answer into their hands. This gave them a chance to practise saying their answer without others hearing.

I use this tactic in my own classroom, and then encourage learners to repeat their ideas to a partner (still a safe space because it’s a small audience). Only after this do I ask them to share their idea with the whole class.

When learners don’t have time to prepare, knowing their name could be called at any time can make them feel anxious. Therefore, giving them ample time to prepare will help them feel more ready to participate.

Use textbooks to break down ideas and take small steps

A crucial part of the mastery approach is the careful structuring of lessons and tasks. Making careful use of variation theory (both conceptual and procedural) will help your learners progress through new lessons by taking small steps forward rather than sudden leaps.

As adults, we can suffer from the ‘curse of the expert’ — it can be hard for us to imagine what it’s like to not understand the maths we are teaching — that makes it challenging and time consuming for us to craft lessons made up of all the necessary small steps for learners.

This is where high-quality textbooks come in. They are written by experts who think carefully about the incremental steps in learning, and they are tested on thousands of learners all across the world to ensure the lessons work.

Keep your expectations high

Above all, we need to have high expectations. Children will fulfil our expectations, so we need to make sure we aren’t limiting them. If a learner develops an average self-image, they will live up to that and be reluctant to push themselves further.

Labelling learners does them no favours. However much pressure you’re under to think of your learners as advanced, middle or struggling, try not to communicate those labels to your students lest they become self-fulfilling.

One of the many joys of the mastery approach is that all learners have the opportunity to achieve highly. I never cease to be amazed at what children can achieve, and for me, that’s what’s so exciting about the mastery approach to teaching.