Why should we stretch our advanced learners?

Every classroom has pupils that fall into the advanced learner category. They’re easy to spot. Look for the pupils who answer every question correctly and can understand anything you throw at them. They seem to move through content with ease.

Why then, would we want these bright sparks to struggle and even fail at maths? Getting the answers right isn’t always a good indicator of true mastery. There are some crucial skills these pupils are missing out on.

When you’re planning lessons and thinking about differentiation strategies, it’s important to add activities that stretch your advanced learners’ conceptual knowledge. Why do they need this stretch? We’ve laid out some of the reasons here:

1. To be challenged in order to truly master the curriculum

By allowing children to struggle they will be pushed to work at a greater depth without being accelerated onto topics for older children. Just as we see for any pupil, challenging their learning can be a great assessment tool for a teacher. It can reveal learning behaviours that need to be looked at and worked on. Specifically for advanced learners, it can show us who in the class is relying on strong arithmetic skills rather than having a deep understanding of the topic. We want children to learn to manipulate the skills they have acquired from the lessons learnt, rather than replicating methods they have memorised, and apply them to different and unseen problems.

2. Stop children becoming complacent or coasting through education

We want to develop a growth mindset where pupils enjoy the challenge. Pupils need to experience the discomfort of not knowing the answer straight away or even failing. Through practice, learners become more comfortable with the struggle and working through to a solution. Struggling learners are much more familiar with these feelings through the stretch contained in the curriculum as it stands, but for advanced learners we need to create these scenarios for them. Therefore they will be able to experience the immense personal satisfaction of solving a hard problem.

3. Encourage children to take calculated risks

We want learners to push boundaries while still adhering to mathematical rules. Pupils need to understand what they can and can’t do in the world of maths, so they can take calculated risks. If they are able to justify and evidence their answers even though they may have stepped away from the methods they learnt in class, they will have true conviction in their solutions. This is especially important in the multi-step, multi-topic word problems that we see in the new style of GCSE questions and throughout their mathematical education when students are required to write coherent and confident proofs.

4. Transform failure from the worst-case scenario to a learning experience

We don’t want children to see failing as a negative but as an opportunity to reflect on their own learning and working styles. We want them to start asking themselves: Why did I get this wrong? What have I misunderstood? Where have I miscalculated? What don’t I know yet? This should strengthen their problem solving skills, as they start to analyse the information given in a question at each stage of the problem. If failure is no longer a taboo word for our advanced learners, they’ll be forced to confront it head on and it will become a natural part of their learning. Just like our other pupils, we want advanced learners to cope well with not being the best at everything — this fact shouldn’t make them give up or even worse, not try to begin with. They should strive to better themselves and convert their weaknesses to strengths.

Realistically, we want to keep our advanced learners busy, keep their attention in class and stop boredom from creeping in. If they move away from feeling like ‘this is easy and I get everything right’, learn to push themselves and really enjoy this new and added stretch — their mathematical learning can have no limits.

Give advanced learners the struggle they need with Mathsteasers: a three-part booklet series developed by MNP and Tony Gardiner.

Mathsteasers Series Covers

is Editorial and Production Manager at and a maths tutor.

Published on