Problem solving

We have had a number of people popping in recently to see how we teach maths- including other head teachers from DGAT, the governors and this Monday gone, our Academy Development Partner and the head of maths from Stroud High. You might conclude we’re either we’re under scrutiny for getting it wrong or we being lauded for getting it right. In reality we would see our maths provision simply as a more positive and improving picture and I encourage these kinds of visits to showcase any strengths we may have and then hence to build upon them. In other words it’s a glass half full approach to school development. One big push in maths these last few months and an emerging strength has been the determination to have problems as the starting point for lessons, as the way in; instead of being the ‘challenge’ we get to if the children have shown themselves capable enough with their basic skills. We all know as parents that the best kind of maths is usually drawn out incidentally half way down the supermarket aisle or sitting at the kitchen table, working out how much turf might be needed for the back lawn. This takes a bit of effort but it is maths with a purpose, maths that is fun, maths often with various possible solutions. When our children are starting out on their learning journey –and when they are in Nursery and the Foundation Stage, this is reliably how we present maths to them. However as they get older and the weight of the curriculum content and the pressure to reach standards grows, we all, parents and teachers alike, sacrifice our good intentions and begin to get overly functional about the process of learning maths. As a parent I have been guilty of reaching for that Letts maths book and marching my child through to the next star sticker and as a teacher I have been guilty of presenting them with a page of sums to prove to me that I taught them them. I don’t believe this is a good place to have got to—I don’t care if it’s what we’ve always done and that children like the stickers- it is reliably not the best of educations that we are offering and it does not turn our children into ‘mathematicians’—because, by the way, they can all be mathematicians.

One critical observation I have made in the last few weeks- has been that our children gain a keener grasp on their basic skills and methods when they are applying them in the context of solving a problem than when they are learning them in isolation. As often in education, this feels like a statement of the blindingly obvious – which is predictable given the basic tenets of what make for good learning have probably been around, in one form or another, since the beginning of time. What saddens me is how regularly good sense is dismantled by the pressure of accountability- both in terms of attainment and teaching standards imposed on us from elsewhere. It leads to a distracting focus on comparing oneself to others, on adult preoccupations with things like data and Ofsted. Just as a teacher conducting a Philosophy for Children session with a class finds, when they actually listen carefully to their children, they are constantly surprised and inspired by what comes bubbling up to the surface from the depths of young minds, so also we as educators looking for strategic direction, will always find greater inspiration and be surprised by how clear the way forward can be when we allow the children themselves and alone to be our raison d’etre. It does sadden me just how bold a leap of faith is required to get back to such a blindingly obvious principle.

There has been plenty of talk nationally this last year about something called ‘mastery.’ In many ways there is nothing new about the concept of mastery: it is, in essence, about encouraging deeper thinking and about strengthening children’s capacity to apply their skills. The subtle but significant shift that the mastery concept ushers in is the principle that when teaching maths, we don’t jump onto new skills and methods and knowledge until the children are ready. We look instead to spread sideways and deepen. The other important angle on this is that all pupils can and should be aiming for this kind of mastery- certainly not just those who grasp the maths quicker. We must be in the business of helping all pupils to become strong mathematicians with deep roots and thick stems as opposed to spindly little plants kept in the dark and fed on a diet of worksheets. To achieve this we have chosen to focus our efforts initially on making problem solving central and improving the quality of our questioning. Feedback thus far has been very positive. One pupil said, ‘Working through problems is so much better because it’s real and we end up talking. The process is so much more important than the solution. The solution won’t change your life.’ So there you have it- we will certainly be looking to build on this direction.