Stretching all pupils to fulfil maths potential

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When it comes to mathematics, some people 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.

Although some children may display flashes of genius or look like maths maestros to the outside world, by putting them on a pedestal we are doing them no favours. This only adds more pressure and singles children out to their detriment.

Every child has maths potential

Everyone is special and when it comes to maths being extra special is just nonsense. No one is born with a universal maths superpower and children can grow their maths potential. Although some people appear to be blessed with extraordinary or outstanding abilities, these abilities are not out of reach. Maths ability is not fixed; it can stay the same, it can decay and decline or it can go through the roof.

Labelling someone as being ‘most able’ is dangerous because we 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 be edited and children need to know that they can change their maths behaviour, resilience and performance. They might find they are more in tune with shapes than numbers but that doesn’t mean it will always be this way.

In maths, understanding is in a constant state of change. Sometimes this might be the slightest jolt or it could be a tectonic shift. In an inclusive maths mastery environment, labelling children according to their maths ability is risky and potentially damaging to self-confidence. They can twist and contort expectations and give children a false sense of who they are as a learner. Labels limit learning because they are not focused on the whole child.

We need to reconceptualise the maths environment and see everyone as having maths potential. We must commit to inclusive high quality teaching as an absolute non-negotiable.

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Stretching all children

We should look for ways to extend tasks for all children as every child can and should be stretched. They all have the potential. When we stretch children’s learning, we also need to focus on assessment and feedback to identify the cracks, gaps and holes in their knowledge and understanding.

When children are appropriately challenged, they are motivated and enjoy their maths. They take ownership of their learning and become increasingly independent and resilient. Inclusive high quality teaching is achieved through dialogic teaching, assessment for learning questions and encouraging deep learning conversations where understanding is seen as a collaborative effort.

So how do you extend tasks in the classroom?

Start small

Catering for children working at very different levels can be tough but you can start small. Start with one basic question and then adapt the content in the question down without changing the format. This provides children with the same thinking challenge, but with content that is more appropriate. You could also take the same basic question and alter it to involve working backwards, multiple steps, filling a gap or a non-standard representation.

Ask open-ended questions

Some of the most effective ways of stretching children are to provide open-ended problems that allow for multiple responses and perspectives. Rather than make numbers bigger or make content harder we can use unfamiliar or unusual tasks to challenge thinking and change the structure of routine questions.

Ask them to prove it

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

Design more complex questions

When a question or problem has more than one correct answer or more than one strategy to obtain the answer then you have an in-built extension that doesn’t require hours of planning. Open-ended extension tasks are designed to be suitable for all children and so children can work at them together and learn from each other. These tasks are not intended to be ones that can be solved quickly or without thought but require cooperation and pooled thinking.

Make activities SHINE

Nick Tiley-Nunn in his book Primary Maths (2014) says that activities have to SHINE. They have to be:

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 should make all children think. For pupils with high potential — and that is everyone — solving a new problem, adapting to a new situation and trying to find a pattern and modelling a real-life situation are all essential skills we should promote every week of the year.

is an Education Consultant and Author who specialises in primary maths, and a blogger on Pedagogy.

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