The aim of this project was to try and improve the engagement and attainment in our Broad General Education (BGE) maths classes. By adopting new teaching approaches, we hoped to generate more collaborative discussion in the classroom and see pupils becoming more involved in their learning. To support this, we decided to keep our S1 cohort mixed and use aspects of mastery to try and remove this fixed attitude towards maths. The pupils were fixated on being shown a quick method or a rule that they could apply to answer questions, without every really understanding why they were carrying out these processes. Instead, we wanted to expose pupils to manipulatives, tools, and methods that they could use to work through problems, not just in a maths but across the wider school and in real-life settings. If this initial project were a success, the long term goal for the department would be more confident pupils achieving higher rates of success in their National Qualifications.
We had some success with the project. The pupils were more engaged with their learning and more confident in their ability. More pupils were participating in class discussions, homework completion rates were higher and there were fewer guesses in their responses. Most pupils were also able to use the skills they were shown successfully in other contexts, and this made elements of the course more accessible to all. We saw some pupils attempt Level 3 and 4 work, where they would normally have been placed in a ‘bottom set’.
The teachers had more confidence in the methodologies and approaches being used for the first time. We were more comfortable using physical manipulatives for all pupils and the project changed the way we teach other topics further up the school. It was difficult adjusting to the mixed ability classes, but we found that most pupils had a lack of understanding or recall with many of the topics. The knowledge approach we tried did mean that it took longer to teach concepts, and it was therefore hard to stick to the original timeline.
If we were to start again, we would create a better, more detailed plan for the project to have greater clarity on what we were trying to achieve. Better assessments would need to be created to ensure we were evaluating the right criteria, not simply testing the recall of pupils.
Several factors meant that we were not able to stick to our initial project timeline. Our baseline survey was distributed later into our project than we would have liked, mainly because we hadn’t finalised the finer details of our project plan. This may have meant that our survey results were more positive than they would otherwise have been. The first block of lessons also took much longer to deliver than anticipated. This had a knock on impact on the remaining blocks. Isolations during Covid resulted in further delays and meant that we rushed some aspects of the learning.
The original project plan was too vague, and this meant that we had to react to some situations as they developed. The department found it difficult to meet regularly to discuss our progress with the project. As such, changes were made informally and, on an ad-hoc basis, reacting to situations rather than because of planned changes.
There has been a positive impact resulting from our project. This S1 cohort has responded to the curriculum much more positively than previous cohorts. Pupils enjoyed using the manipulatives and many have adapted the techniques that they have been shown to work for them. They were more enthusiastic about learning topics which were traditionally met with moans and groans. When given a choice of material to work on, more pupils selected the more difficult option. This showed increased confidence and willingness to engage in challenge. The language pupils used was more positive, a wider range of pupils got involved in class discussions and homework was to a higher standard.
We have a renewed enthusiasm for teaching in the department and will be implementing many of the techniques and strategies used in the project in the future. As a result of the mastery approach and the mixed ability classes, we felt more responsive to what pupils knew and were developing for themselves, rather than being quite procedural and limiting in our teaching. It was enjoyable to see pupils challenge themselves further and not be restricted by a set level class. There was a lot of value in using the manipulatives and we will further develop the use of these throughout BGE and beyond. As a department, we now spend more time discussing both our teaching practice and findings from our professional development. And colleagues are more inspired to further their professional learning in the areas of mastery and manipulatives. We do feel that more work might have to be done to develop our practice and course before we could fully move to mixed ability classes.
The most recent pupil survey results were encouraging. There were clear indications that pupils were feeling more confident about maths. In the initial algebra survey, 24% of pupils reported feeling that they needed a little or a lot of help, compared to just 9% after the project who felt that they couldn’t improve their algebraic skills. No pupils reported that they couldn’t do algebra and never would be able to. Some 36% of respondents had more confidence in their algebraic skills and there was a 4% increase in the number of pupils who were happy or looking forward to learning more algebra in the future. Although a small increase, this was a pleasant change. The most positive impact from the project related to the proportion of pupils who felt they could be good/very good at algebra, which rose from 53% to 72%.
Feedback on the techniques and manipulatives used, has also been positive. The majority of pupils (73%) enjoyed at least one aspect used, with the algebra tiles voted as the preferred manipulative. When asked what they would use again, only two respondents felt they would not use any of the techniques or manipulatives. These results, along with the day to day feedback from pupils and staff observations, show the positive impact our project has had on the S1 cohort.
Feedback from within the maths department has been positive and all staff have seen consistent results. Pupils were confident, participating in class, sharing their ideas, pushing themselves further and more resilient when facing challenge. Most pupils responded well to the manipulatives, and many adopted the strategies and techniques covered in class. Teachers outwith the department also observed encouraging results. Pupils talked positively about what they were doing in maths, in other classes. A Support for Learning Teacher saw a noticeable change in one pupil, stating “he was very resistant to coming for literacy help, cried, moaned, tried to get out of it, refused to accept he had any difficulties, hated trying, wouldn't push himself etc. I don't know if it's anything to do with your Growth Mindset work - perhaps you'll know the answer to that - but he has really come round now, accepts what he can't do and is prepared to work on it, doesn't moan or cry and is making good progress - big difference in attitude and it's good to see.”
We will continue with many of the key aspects of our project with this year group and extend them further across the junior phase and into the senior course, where appropriate. A mastery style approach is definitely having a positive effect on the mindset of many of our pupils and giving them a new level of self-confidence in the subject. The use of manipulatives and many of our teaching methods are having a positive impact on most pupils and reinforcing the idea that they don’t have to learn a set method or rule. There are various approaches that they can now use to answer questions and hopefully as they become more fluent in these, they will transfer the skills to other subject areas. Our restricted BGE will need to be developed and timescales reviewed, to allow us to spend more time exploring some topics and utilising manipulatives further. Careful consideration will need to be given to the set-up of our classes and whether we continue with mixed ability classes or not.