As a former head of maths and vice-principal in inner-city secondary schools, I have had the privilege of working with excellent maths teachers and seeing inspirational maths lessons.
Yet I was not surprised to see the recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study report indicating that UK maths education is not keeping pace with other nations. It is not the first time we have heard this story – the Vorderman Report, the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education’s Mathematical Needs and Ofsted’s Made to Measure all made an urgent case for change.
It is clear to many maths teachers that we could do more. But given limited time, resources, support and experience, the question is, how? There is a wealth of research in maths education, demonstrating practices that work. But the challenge for any one teacher, department, or school of incorporating this into their daily lessons is immense.
Take the example of problem-solving. Many maths teachers believe (rightly, if we look at research) that solving problems is the most effective way to learn mathematics. Many maths teachers want to integrate problem-solving into everyday lessons, but the demands of curriculum coverage often mean that problem-solving is squeezed in at the end of topic, reserved for a top set, or structured beyond recognition.
Luckily, in case of problem-solving, organisations like NRICH provide excellent free resources. But even here, it remains challenging to systematically incorporate these so that they can support and reinforce key curriculum topics, rather than just as an add-on.
Back in 2009, schools in the ARK Schools network agreed to trial a shared curriculum and to collaborate to populate it with lessons, tasks, problems and assessments. Drawing on maths education from the UK and abroad, we picked a number of features to anchor this collaboration. None of these are rocket science and most are seen in good maths lessons. The challenge has been as much about integrating these features systematically in every lesson throughout the year.
We were fortunate to be generously supported by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) at an early stage. This means we have also had additional staff time dedicated to working with secondary school teachers and pupils to develop original materials and to ensure collaboratively generated materials fit together coherently.
The three key features of our approach are:
Mastery for all: we believe that children of all backgrounds can succeed in mathematics.
Fewer topics, in greater depth: we prioritise understanding topics fully, mastering the concepts, before moving on. We spend a long time developing and deepening understanding, with particular focus on the use of language and the use of concrete manipulatives and pictorial representations, before moving to abstract representations.
Problem-solving: this is both how and why we learn mathematics. Our approach particularly recognises the importance of problem-solving skills, including using diagrams/models to represent problems.
We are working with the Institute of Education to evaluate the programme (supported, again, by the EEF) and though it is early days, feedback from the 37 schools taking part has been excellent.
It has not been without challenges. For example, behaviour for learning can (initially) dip when introducing truly open-ended problem-solving or working with concrete manipulatives. To make it work, it requires strong leadership team buy-in and external support. The programme provides schools with support by providing training days, school support visits, and an online bank of rich tasks, lesson materials, and lesson observation videos from member schools.
Collaboration has been a huge driver in success. There is also an online forum for teachers, regular cluster meetings where teachers discuss successes and challenges, and member teachers share good practice videos of their own real lessons.
Sharing and collaboration is certainly not new, but because all member schools are committed to exactly the same curriculum and tasks, the relevance of other teachers’ best practice is much more immediate.
These materials are not made to save time, but to shift the time teachers spend creating resources so they can spend more time adapting lessons, trying out the problems themselves, and planning as a department.
Funded places for pioneers
Thanks to the EEF, we are able to offer fully funded places to a limited number of secondary schools to pioneer the approach from September 2013. We would look to these schools to collaborate and make a significant contribution to the curriculum and online bank of resources. The application deadline is February 12 and we will be holding an information evening on February 7 in London.
If you agree with our principles, want to close the attainment gap in maths, and believe in a collaborative approach, we would love to hear from you.
Dr Helen Drury is director of mathematics at ARK Schools and director of Mathematics Mastery.