Use of paired observations when 'trying something different'
This school is a high-achieving, selective girls’ school whose intake is from much of the Greater Birmingham area. At the time of the project, the department consisted of one part-time and six full-time members of staff, all of whom were highly skilled and capable of teaching A level and beyond. The usual teaching style is very traditional, comprising explanation, examples and exercises.
Aims of project
The aim of this part of the project was to increase the range of activities that students take part in during the development of their mathematical (and other) knowledge in the classroom. Pupil feedback at the end of the 2009-10 academic year raised questions about whether they were really enjoying their mathematics education or simply enduring it. It was hoped that the amount of active learning that takes place within the classroom could be increased and therefore improve students’ perceptions without having a detrimental effect on attainment. This project relates to the use of practical and paper-based resources, along with more formal group and collaborative working to increase student enthusiasm and enjoyment for mathematics within the classroom.
CPD activities planned and undertaken
Over the previous year or so, I had carried out extensive research into the use of active learning resources in the classroom, designed to improve students’ enjoyment and understanding of mathematics. The benefits of incorporating some of these activities within the standard curriculum model were such that I felt I had to encourage my team to engage with some of these activities.
The first part of the CPD was a showcasing of some of the resources that I had been looking at as part of my research. These included examples from the Standards Box as well as other ideas picked up from conferences and other sources along with Tarsia-type resources and practical mathematics activities. There was discussion as to how these resources could be used within the classroom and how they could help students improve both their knowledge and enjoyment of mathematics. The idea that they could be used to ‘join the dots’ between several related areas of mathematics proved a powerful one.
The second ‘selling’ aspect of the CPD was to engage the department in a discussion of learning styles in mathematics. A departmental meeting was set aside to consider this and documentation was provided to allow a discussion to take place. It had long been the case that students sit and listen to the teacher explain something and do a few examples before then completing a set of exercise questions. This is all well and good for some learners but others prefer to get ‘into’ the mathematics and explore rather than being spoon-fed. The idea of the discussion on learning styles was to gain an appreciation that a range of activities which would suit all (over time) would generally lead to better outcomes in the long run.
The final aspect of the CPD was to ‘delegate’ to the department and ask them to use some of the showcased resources (or develop their own) at appropriate times during the term. In addition to this, the focus for the department paired observations during the Autumn term was ‘Try Something Different’. The idea behind delegating rather than instructing was to encourage staff to engage with the resources and use what they wanted when they wanted. This sense of ownership would, hopefully, increase the use of these resources over time. It was also important that the teachers were enthusiastic about using the resources in order to have a positive impact on students.
Success of the CPD approach used
During the initial showcasing of the resources, the department team engaged with them and enjoyed the discussion of how they might be used in the classroom. This was obviously a very positive first step. The second aspect of the selling, the discussion of learning styles, provoked significant discussion as to what active learning looked like, particularly with regard to the kinaesthetic aspect of learning. There was extensive debate about whether kinaesthetic learning needed to involve movement or whether practical activities such as card-matching and other hands-on activities could be used in this regard. A definitive answer was not really reached but there was general agreement that the ‘Try Something Different’ idea was a good one. The delegation aspect of the CPD then took over and I awaited feedback at the end of term.
During the last week of term, the team sat down and discussed the project during a departmental meeting. One pair had already completed their paired observations and the other two pairs were planning theirs over the first weeks of the Spring term. In addition, several members of the team had used active learning resources during lessons, independent of the paired observation activity. This was obviously very positive and I asked the team to give me an idea of the types of activity they had used and the attitudes of the students towards them. A range of Tarsia-type resources had been used across all three key stages as well as lessons from the Standards Box. Nearly all of the team had used at least one active learning resource during the term. The student feedback can be summarised as follows:
In key stage three, students showed a positive response to the use of these resources. With the group that I taught in year 7 (and who therefore did a whole range of these types of activities), I used a student associate to interview a random sample of students and the feedback recorded showed clear positive attitudes towards this way of working. It was clear that enjoyment was extensive and assessment data showed no decline in academic achievement. For other groups, the feedback was less formal (but I hope to do some focus groups in the new year). Staff felt that the students responded positively to the resources when they were used and that they were enthusiastic (for the most part) about carrying out the activities.
In key stage four, there was less evidence of these resources being used, probably because of the pressure of examinations. However, Tarsia-type resources were used by two members of staff during revision phases and the students clearly enjoyed doing them as something ‘different’. Informal questioning of the students suggested that they liked the activities because they were different but that they would not want to do them all of the time. In a high-achieving school such as ours, the pressure of the A/A* means that students are risk-averse. It is clear that many feel safe with the traditional tried-and-tested method of knowledge acquisition (and hence the staff provide it for them).
In key stage five, there was evidence of several groups taking part in active learning tasks. My own groups had a steady diet of them alongside the more traditional delivery of content and they very much enjoyed doing the tasks. In other groups, the occasional activity was used but it was far less widespread. A pupil focus group at the end of term provided some interesting feedback in this regard. There was a clear sense from the students that they actually did not like this way of working in general, preferring to acquire their knowledge through the traditional methods. One student even commented that they would prefer more examples and exposition from the teacher before completing their own exercises. I asked them if they would have been surprised if their teacher walked in one day with a host of practical activities and (students from my own groups notwithstanding) they said yes they would. This was followed up with a prompt about whether they would like to have the chance to do more practical activities and the general feeling was that no they wouldn’t. While this was obviously disappointing, it goes back to the risk-averse nature of the students who see high academic achievement as the principle goal and who will endure at the expense of enjoyment if it gets them the A and A* grades.
The outcome of a year 12 ‘Standards Box’ activity on quadratic functions.
Two different outcomes of a year 12 indices jigsaw activity.
Three different ways that the students presented the same ‘domino’ activity during a year 13 statistics lesson.
Overall, it seemed that key stage three students were generally open to these kinds of activities and liked to enjoy their mathematics. When public examinations started to get closer, however, they veer away from this towards the safety of 'explain, example and exercise'.
Evaluation of CPD effectiveness
The department were sufficiently interested in the ideas presented on active learning and the discussion of learning styles to engage in the project at the outset. They were also willing to ‘Try Something Different’ and so in this respect, the project was successful in ‘opening eyes’ and developing a different outlook.
However, and almost certainly due to the nature of the school, the perception of both the students (particularly in key stages four and five) and the teachers was still that the traditional methods will lead to the safest end point (i.e. A and A* grades in the examinations). Both students and teachers are risk-averse, as discussed above. In key stage three, students were more prepared to take risks because the costs are far less in the event of things going wrong. However, unless they are continually exposed to these kinds of activities (and appreciate the benefits of them), their enthusiasm fades and they revert to type and will not take risks when bigger prizes are on the horizon.
Future CPD plans
The idea of selling a project of this type to a team of highly-qualified and very experienced teachers who are used to a particular way of working is good because it allows them to question their practice in a safe environment. However, getting them to change their practice is another matter. Delegating responsibility to them to come up with Something Different (and having to provide evidence for it) is a more persuasive way of getting them to work differently but embedding active learning beyond the odd lesson has to involve a whole-scale change of attitude, both among the students and the staff.
Following the project, I intended to do more extensive pupil interviews, learning walks, parent perception surveys and individual teacher interviews to uncover more about the attitudes that all of the stakeholders have to mathematics education. I will continue to showcase resources and encourage an active learning approach within the department and I will open the door of my classroom to anyone who wants to see, first-hand, student engagement and enjoyment with active learning. It is important also to show that, at the very least, no loss in performance accompanies this approach. It is early days, but I have hope that, over time, students can be persuaded to enjoy their mathematics lessons rather than simply endure them.