Editor’s note: This is an updated version of a blog post published on June 11, 2018
Most of us had been trained to believe that the outstanding classroom must have children grouped according to ‘ability’, with teachers providing each group with its own differentiated work. Naturally, we had some concerns that by switching to the whole class approach we might not meet all of our children’s learning needs. Would the struggling learners grasp a full and deep understanding of the concepts being taught? How would our advanced learners be stretched? But, we also had concerns about our current model, which clearly wasn’t closing the attainment gap between struggling and advanced learners.
As we started to read and research this topic, we found that our instincts were right; the research indicated that whole-class teaching could be the way forward, and more importantly, if set up carefully, could maximise gains for all children.
We were excited to start our new approach, but we knew this would be an enormous mind-shift for students, teachers and parents. High-quality and systematic training was needed. We knew we had to deeply understand the pedagogy of the textbooks and the process of teaching mastery to make it work. We trained with Ban Har (Series Consultant for Maths — No Problem!), and took what we learned back into school. We valued the time and space the leadership team gave us to familiarise ourselves and the children with the new approach. We were given permission to explore without scrutiny and it paid off.
We learned some valuable lessons along the way, all of which we hope will come in handy for anyone about to take this challenging but rewarding journey themselves:
1. How to best pair students
We thought we knew our children well before we began the whole class teaching approach, but as we began to group our classes differently, not only did we take into account their maths’ skills but also other aspects of their personalities and their willingness to communicate and collaborate.
We soon realised that ‘mixed-ability pairs’ was too broad a term and in fact it was more about matching emotional intelligence. We needed our struggling learners to feel safe but equally we needed our advanced learners to feel challenged. Gradually over time, within our school, we began to see that talking partners needed to be matched as much for the communication and collaboration they would draw from each other as the cognitive support they could offer. We also realised that these partnerships might need to be fluid depending on the subject we were teaching. Sometimes a struggling mathematician needed the support of a more advanced learner, other times the advanced mathematician needed the encouragement of a learner with more advanced communication skills in order to express their thinking. It was an eye opener!
2. We needed to revisit our lesson-planning
Taking on a whole class approach meant we really had to know what we were teaching and know it in-depth. We had to deeply examine each lesson, preparing for potential difficulties, identifying where we could go deeper and knowing what the core outcome for the lesson had to be. This allowed us to prepare appropriate questions and strategies to support those struggling and intrigue our advanced learners. The time we used to spend preparing a multitude of worksheets was now being given to knowing the lesson and seeing what there was for each learner. This is an approach that worked well for us, within our school context, but we are sure there are other ways to approach the problem depending on your own situation.
3. Concrete resources need to be meaningful
Through a few false starts and some trial and error, we realized it wasn’t just about having concrete resources available in the classroom. Instead, what worked best for us was to carefully select resources that supported outcomes. Every manipulative had to be a meaningful part of the lesson. It took some time but now everything we use has a real practical value to really enhance the learning.
4. The value of coaching and collaborative study
We had to make time to observe each other teach and to coach each other. This allowed us to explore the learning that was taking place in our classrooms, and supported us as we looked at how we could meet the needs of all learners within a whole class setting. This also had the unintended effect of allowing the children to see their teachers modelling what effective collaboration looks like, and encouraged them to use each other as a learning support.
5. How to best support struggling learners
When we felt that there were gaps in the children’s understanding or that some children were just going to take longer to grasp a concept, we began to see the skills that they would need to access a lesson; perhaps the ability to make ten or to partition numbers in different ways.
We focused on these skills in short pre-teach sessions either with ourselves or a TA if one was available. These pockets of pre-teaching really supported our struggling learners. If someone was struggling within the lesson, we started to use journaling time and independent practice time to revisit the anchor task with the child, allowing them to journal as they re-explored with us.
6. Parents need to be kept informed and involved
We were aware that some parents might be concerned at a shift towards whole class teaching so we made sure we opened the doors and allowed them to be part of our journey. We shared the theory behind the pedagogy and the research with them. We invited them to class and taught them the way their children were being taught. This could be organised as after school workshops, or perhaps a half-day of learning in the classroom with their children, if space and time allowed. We shared resources and showed them the difference they made to the children’s understanding. In every meeting we were explicit in the ways we would be both supporting and deepening children’s understanding. Once our parents came on board the transition was that much smoother!
7. A safe learning environment for our children is key
Thinking carefully about the environment children needed to engage in the learning was key. We considered what support might be needed through display, but we learnt not to overload and to be more specific. Interestingly, the emotional environment of our classes began to change as children realised they were ‘all in it together.’ We made use of modelling productive struggle as teachers, building the children’s resilience to struggle and increasing their capacity to explain — both pivotal parts of including all learners in a whole class model.
Looking back, the world of ability grouping seems so alien and we wouldn’t change the feeling of working together, collaboration and success that only whole class teaching can truly bring!