NCETM-funded project: Using Rich Tasks to Develop Mathematical Thinking in Lower Attaining Key Stage 3 Students, Elnaz Javahery, Heartlands Academy, working with Shane Walsh, The Arthur Terry School
The focus of the research is to investigate if the ability of lower achieving Key Stage 3 students to think mathematically develops through sustained exposure to tasks rich in mathematical processes.
Two secondary school teachers from different schools have a KS3 group (Year 8& 9) which have been the main focus of the research. Both groups are lower ability students, who are not confident in their mathematical ability and are not confident in handling unstructured tasks.
Our schools have allowed us, for one lesson each week, to stray from the departments’ scheme of work. A series of tasks had been selected by the teachers, in the first instance until March. The tasks gradually move from closed tasks to more open tasks, in order to help the students develop their mathematical understanding.
Each task lasts for two lessons; the task is delivered in the first week, with a follow up lesson in the second week. The lessons are delivered concurrently with both schools. The lessons are delivered in a variety of different ways but the key focus of the key processes. The lessons are contained significant levels of self and peer assessment, with a real focus of children working collaboratively. As the tasks have been delivered concurrently, it allows the teachers to jointly plan the lesson, while also allowing the teachers to swap their students work and exposing the students to the other school’s work.
The aim of the research is not to compare the two schools, but to compare the students’ work at the end of the project with their work at the start, therefore allowing conclusion to drawn for both schools.
Two teachers from contrasting Birmingham secondary schools have used NCETM Regional Projects Programme funding to help them work together on the question ‘Would the ability of lower achieving Key Stage 3 pupils to think mathematically develop through sustained exposure to rich tasks?’
Elnaz Javaheri is in her second year of teaching at Heartlands Academy, a National Challenge school; Shane Walsh is in his fourth year of teaching at The Arthur Terry School, a much higher achieving school in Sutton Coldfield. Their collaboration was sparked by a chance conversation at a West Midlands NCETM conference. They developed a plan to work with comparable Year 8 classes on tasks from Bowland and Nuffield, to meet to discuss issues, to visit each others’ classrooms, and for each of the two classes involved to see and comment on work done by the other. They also each negotiated with their Senior Management Teams to use one lesson per week away from their departments’ Schemes of Work. The peer-assessment by pupils turned out to be a particularly strong benefit for the pupils; the opportunity to work over an extended period with another teacher in a different context was a particularly strong benefit for Elnaz Javahery and Shane Walsh.
Among the issues they tackled were: pupils’ difficulty with the language of mathematical problems and assessment criteria; pupils’ reluctance to talk with each other about mathematics; pupils’ limited skills in pair/group work; how to break pupils’ expectation of being ‘spoonfed’; addressing pupils’ belief that there is only one answer to a question; pupils’ ‘limited desire to think’. Both teachers gave pre- and post- assessments using ‘traditional’ assessments and were delighted with the progress made.
More importantly perhaps, they noted a number of key changes in their students, including: a greater readiness to discuss mathematics; pupils feeling more autonomous in the class; increased willingness to challenge their own learning and ideas; having no fixed expectation about how lessons would be.
Were the learning gains due to enhanced self confidence? Or enjoyment? Or a feeling they are succeeding? Or being able to connect mathematical ideas? Or because of the focus on reflecting and analysing? It is difficult to disentangle these strands, but Elnaz Javaheri and Shane Walsh have little doubt that the effect was largely due to different approaches in the classrooms.
And an additional bonus was a noticeably improved atmosphere, even in ‘non project’ lessons.