Keeping up not catching up: how we make this a reality in our school

Guest blog: Liam Colclough, Head of School, St Thomas of Canterbury Primary in Sheffield

Keeping up not catching up: how we make this a reality in our school

Posted: 26/04/16

We’ve been on a two and a half year journey to develop our understanding and application of the Mathematics Mastery approach. The journey is far from over. Indeed, as leader, I have realised our skills and application of the mastery principles require revisiting, refining and grounding on a regular basis.

Here’s how the Mathematics Mastery programme has evolved in our school:

  • Stage 1 (2 years ago): We begin to apply a mastery approach to mathematics teaching in Year 1. As a team, we question how the ‘low ability’ children will keep up.
  • Stage 2 (6 months later): Precise teaching and high expectations mean the aforementioned ‘low ability’ children are in fact keeping up.
  • Stage 3 (also 6 months later): The lower attainers (note the absence of the word ‘ability’) are keeping up, so we ask ourselves, how do we deepen understanding for children who grasp concepts quickly?
  • Stage 4 (a further 6 months later): We all spend a ridiculous amount of time over-analysing and over-thinking what ‘deepening understanding’ actually is, only to be shown the Next Steps For Depth marking stickers from Mathematics Mastery, and have a light bulb moment. Simplicity really is magical.

Whilst all these stages were taking place, our new Same Day Intervention system was being put in place across school. The process involved:

  • Strategic use of Assessment for Learning (AfL) within lessons, enabling us to identify quicker grasping children and children who have misconceptions.
  • Misconceptions used as teaching points to deepen understanding of the whole class.
  • Carefully structured practice questions so children are deepening their understanding through answering carefully chosen examples of the concept.
  • Simple marking (tick or dot) used by adults and children within books to quickly identify which children have kept pace and are ready for the next lesson.
  • Children who have not fully grasped the content (based upon marking and the teacher’s formative assessment within the lesson) spend 15 minutes immediately after the lesson with the teacher, unpicking misconceptions and developing a more solid understanding of the lesson content. The teacher records the following in their book:
    • MC (misconception)
    • Support (what the teacher did to develop understanding)
    • Practice (1-5 questions for the child to practise to consolidate and prepare them for the next day’s lesson)

All of the above is recorded in purple pen, so children who have received additional support can be identified at a glance, and the impact can be easily analysed.

Here’s an example from Year 1:

The above is an example of the way we are marking mathematics across our school. This is stuck in children’s books each before the lesson, and the teacher highlights the box which represents the child’s needs (based upon the marking which has taken place in the lesson).

If a child has grasped the concept but needs some more practice to consolidate their learning, then ‘practise’ will be highlighted.

If the teacher assesses a child and finds they have a solid understanding of the concept and are ready to go deeper, then ‘deepen’ will be highlighted.

If a child has not kept pace within the lesson, then ‘support’ will be highlighted by the teacher, and Same Day Intervention happens straight away.

As mentioned, this is 15 minutes straight after the lesson with the teacher, addressing the misconception (MC) and then detailing what support was given to overcome the misconception (support). Children who have either ‘practice’ or ‘deepen’ highlighted complete this when they arrive in school the next day as part of their morning learning.

We’re now ready for Stage 5 (a further 6 months on). Having enhanced our collective understanding of how to deepen children’s understanding of mathematics, embedded the Same Day Intervention system, and with teaching more precise and ambitious than ever – there was still a gut feeling that some children weren’t quite ‘there’ in lessons. Cue a leadership team deep-dive into why.

What did we find? Some children were missing some small but key mathematical building blocks, which were absolutely essential for them to understand before they could fully grasp any lesson content.

For example, our children had a lesson on converting improper fractions to mixed numbers. During the lesson, it became apparent that around 10 children in the class hadn’t fully activated their awareness that 7/7 = 1, 4/4/ = 1, 5/5= 1, 6/6/= 1 etc.

This small piece of prior knowledge being activated – or actually taught – would have supported the children to digest the concept of improper fractions much more quickly.

This pattern was seen at different points, across the school. We could see so many children were close to understanding content – if only they could see a key piece of the puzzle before the lesson.

As a consequence, our staff development is focussed on identifying what the building blocks and foundations for learning are within each lesson. That way, we can ensure the children have these in place before we teach new content. By filling in these gaps, the children are able to grasp new topics more deeply and more quickly.

This approach requires our team to dig deep into their wells of subject knowledge. We also have to challenge ourselves to think through the eyes of a child. Our mathematics lead teacher is tracking impact, and the proof of the pudding will be in analysing the number of children who need Same Day Intervention support when the quality of pre-learning is high.

Our aim is to keep filling in the children’s knowledge gaps through effective yet simple pre-learning (before the end of a lesson). Same Day Intervention will then hopefully be required much less over time.

It is fascinating to reflect on the evolution of our teaching craft as a result of embracing the Mathematics Mastery programme, and I have no doubt that, in another six months, there will be added layers of depth and understanding to add to these reflections.