How to deliver maths mastery in mixed-age classes

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Can you deliver maths mastery in a mixed-age class? Short answer: yes! As long as you plan carefully, support learners and always differentiate.

Teaching for mastery means believing all learners have the same maths potential and can achieve the same learning goals. Sounds great in theory, but what if you teach mixed-age classes? Does maths mastery still work if your learners have different learning goals?

The short answer is yes (otherwise this would be a very brief blog post). It’s not exactly a doddle, but it’s certainly doable. We’ll show you how.

Three models that deliver mixed-class teaching

The first big question of mixed-year teaching is: how do you make sure that each year meets the expected standards for their age?

Start by looking at the curriculum for the years you’re teaching. Map out where the content aligns, and where it diverges and plan to use whole-class teaching to cover the shared topics (more on this later).

You can teach different topics by focusing on the individual year groups with differentiated tasks and separate instruction. Maths mastery guru Dr Yeap Ban Har suggests using three models for mixed-class teaching:

  • Toggling: let one year group do independent work while you focus on the other learners. Then toggle between the groups. This model requires planning — you’ll need to build in alternating independent tasks into your lessons.
  • Parallel learning: teach all learners together to learn the same content and then challenge older learners with greater depth.
  • Centre-based learning: divide learners into year-based groups. Then move between the groups to offer support and ask questions. Again, this model requires a fair bit of planning and coordination between groups.

Whichever model you choose, be flexible in your teaching — decisions about how to deliver lessons will always depend on what you are teaching and the needs of your learners. Don’t be afraid to switch things up to find out what works best for you.

Tips to support learners during mixed-age maths lessons

Once you’ve planned your lesson delivery, it’s time to turn your attention to what happens during a lesson. Babcock’s 2016 report on applying mastery in a mixed-age classroom recommends supporting learners during lessons by:

  • Use elicitation tasks: assessing learners’ prior knowledge before you start teaching will help you decide when to use whole-class teaching and when to teach a year group separately.
  • Support learners to work independently: learners need to be able to work without an adult if you need to focus on the other year group. Focus on encouraging collaboration between your learners so they can support each other when you’re focusing on another group.
  • Pre-teach: help struggling learners work at the same pace as their peers by giving them extra attention before you start the main lesson.
  • Use rapid support and intervention: provide extra support as soon as a learner needs it. Be careful not to attach any negative stigma to learners who need pre-teaching or additional intervention.
  • Question effectively: use careful questioning to prompt learners to think more deeply about their learning. Encouraging and developing talk in the classroom talk will help learners build their communication and reasoning skills.
  • Give effective feedback: use formative assessment to support your learners and adapt your teaching to meet their needs.

How to differentiate within a mixed-age class

Differentiation strategies meet children’s individual needs while keeping the whole class learning at the same pace. Differentiation is especially important in mixed-age classes as it allows you to teach all learners together. Not only will you avoid coordinating alternating independent tasks, your older and younger learners will have the chance to work together and learn from one another.

The good news is, if you can differentiate within a single year group class, then you can differentiate in a mixed-aged class. Seriously, depending on your learners, a single-year class could have a more diverse range of learners than a mixed-year class.

So the principles of differentiating by content, process and product will still apply:

  • Differentiating by content: vary your methods of teaching the same knowledge. One way to do this is by giving learners different instructions for the same task. Another way is to vary the materials given to learners, you could provide concrete resources to younger learners and pictorial materials to the older year group.
  • Differentiating by process: vary the way that children make sense of the learning. You can use questioning to differentiate by adjusting your questions depending on the year group. You can make learning accessible for younger learners and challenge older learners by using ‘low-floor, high ceiling’ tasks.
  • Differentiating by product: give learners different ways to show their mastery of a topic. One way to do this in mixed-age classes is to ask the older year group to explain concepts to the younger learners. Older learners find mentoring empowering and younger learners accomplish tasks they couldn’t do without the support of their older peers.

Here’s some happy learners from a Year 1/2 split class at Egremont Primary School working together to compare numbers to 100 by using concrete manipulatives.

Teaching mixed-age classes does require careful planning and coordination during lessons — but the principles of maths mastery still apply. Whole-class teaching, building confidence and focusing on depth can help you deliver top-class maths teaching in a mixed-age class (or any type of class really!).

References
Babcock (2016) Teaching for mastery in mathematics in mixed-age classes Final Report. Available at: https://www.babcockldp.co.uk/improving-schools-settings/mathematics/teaching-for-mastery/primary-teaching-for-mastery/teaching-for-mastery-mixed-age-classes (accessed 21 January 2020).

Berry C. (2004) Mixed Age Classes in Urban Primary Schools: Perceptions of Headteachers. Available at: http://multigrade.ioe.ac.uk/fulltext/fulltextBerrymixedage.pdf (accessed 21 January 2020)

is an author, maths tutor and the Blog’s Commissioning Editor.
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