On Saturday, I presented at #mixedattainmentmaths (Powerpoint is here), the first in hopefully a series of conferences bringing together teachers and educationalists to share ideas and experiences of teaching in a mixed environment. As I had expected, most of the presenters had a deeply held conviction in the validity of organising our classes in this way, whether it be for social justice reasons or due to educational research demonstrating that the overall progress of learners is improved compared to a setted environment.
I admire those who are championing this cause. Since starting teaching I have felt a sense of unease about putting children into sets, but the pragmatist in me can see the reasons why it is the predominant way of organising secondary maths in the UK.
My talk was mostly about some of the resources that we have developed over the last year or so of teaching our Year 7 and Year 8 classes in mixed attainment groupings (currently with a small nurture group in Year 7). If you would like to read more about some of the changes that we have made, Gwen Tresidder from NCETM wrote a case study on our school here.
Before looking at some maths, I did touch on some of the considerations for schools moving to mixed. It is a significant change to make to a department and one that needs to be considered carefully. In particular:
- Is there a problem with classroom culture in your lower sets or indeed sometimes top sets where maths can be seen as something that is all about speed and getting the right answer rather than reasoning and problem solving?
- How will teachers be supported? I believe that we have been successful so far in moving to mixed groups and the key to this has been our weekly 1 hour collaborative planning sessions. e. 1 hour for Year 7 teachers and 1 hour for Year 8.
- How to plan the low threshold high ceiling activities that provide suitable challenge for a wide range of learners. The “Toy Story” tasks, I called them, where different learners can be working at different levels at the same time in a manageable way.
- How to develop teachers’ skills in questioning a mixed attainment group. I have noticed that there is more whole-class dialogue in our mixed attainment classes, but it requires skill from the teachers in directing these questions and managing the responses so that everyone learns something from the explanations given. This recent blog from Dani Quinn has oodles of great advice on this.
- The need to develop children’s skills and habits in providing careful explanations of their mathematical reasoning. We ask them to stand up to make a contribution, for example. Initially I was uneasy about this, but I have really seen the benefit once it becomes established. You can see children carefully constructing their explanation in their head before standing up. When they are ready, they stand up and usually give a coherent explanation using correct terminology. It makes them slow down, think first, and I believe they know it is a better contribution and feel proud as a result.
- How to convince parents that their child is being given “appropriate” work to do. This has been particularly challenging with the higher attainers, especially when that child is in top sets for other subjects. Some parents feel we are just following a fad. We have made efforts to explain the reasons behind what we are doing, but we probably need to do more.
The focus of this workshop was on that last point, i.e. how to provide challenge to higher attainers in mixed groups. I will be writing more about that over the coming weeks, so please follow this blog if you are interested.