Thinking Aloud: Following up on a rant.

Today I felt part of a movement. The National Mathematics Teacher Conference in Kettering, organised by Mark McCourt via his La Salle Education team was mindblowing, in lots of ways.

I got to meet, hear from and discuss with people who are right at the forefront of maths education in the UK. Johnny Ball, hero of heroes in my book, was passionate as he was enchanting when he talked about maths, and he presented so many enlightening concepts in such a short space of time that I wish I could go through it all over again. Kris Boulton is not just at the cutting edge but bleeding edge of teaching and learning, and his research into memory could have massive implications in regards to the education of students at the ‘less socially mobile’ end of the education spectrum. David Thomas’ methods and use of assessment overlapped quite heavily with my own but I still learned huge amounts.

Vanessa Pittard’s talk? It was a government PR exercise if anything, and it felt that she was presenting something written for her rather than by her. I’ll happily champion the investment in further education of Maths and the stretching of higher ability students, but what about those who need the basic maths skills just to survive in the modern world? What about them? That said I could see why the presentation happened as it’s important for us all to know the latest government thinking.

But it was Andrew Smith’s talk that got my blood boiling, and not for fault of Andrew’s.

Fluency is a word that carries a huge amount of credence at the moment, and for the right reasons. Andrew’s talk about fluency was a reasoned argument in favour of ensuring students practice key method before moving on to problem solving, creative work, discovery learning and independent tasks. It’s based on scientific research that suggests that factual recall comes before true knowledge. He used research by Hattie, Willingham, et al to challenge some of the fallacious arguments against rigorous practice that are brought up by a number of agencies, both in and out of school.

Now I’ll be honest and say that a lot of Andrew’s talk was quite forthright, and I can see why the ‘discovery’ and group work brigade might have been riled, but still – everything he said was based on sound research.

And then there were the questions. And a point was raised that seemed to ignore the points that Andrew made, and aimed at his method of delivery to justify a point that engaging and fun tasks should hold primacy over practice to get the best out of students.

So, I stuck my oar in. Or perhaps threw my rattle out of the pram. Either way. My argument was thus:

Engagement is not a result of the task that students are asked to do. Engagement comes from the teacher. You might have to teach the most boring and frankly soul-destroying topic known to man (My choice? Questionnaires) but if you, the teacher, has the class in the palm of your hand, hell, you could be trying to teach them partial integrals of algebraic fractions and they’d still follow you.

First and foremost, no matter what you’re teaching, who you’re teaching, or where you’re teaching it, relationships with students matter.

What is it to relate to a student? It’s to know what makes them tick, to massage their ego a little bit whilst at the same time asserting legitamacy in your ability and respect for the authority you hold in the classroom. This idea is true at any level and age. I can’t teach my Y11 students in the same way I do my Y8s because they’re of a different maturity, have less confidence in Maths and more interested in who’s going out with who rather than how to estimate the square root of 90.

If the relationship isn’t there, then it doesn’t matter if you go for fluency or discovery, the learning won’t happen. You could have wonderful lesson full of props, coloured paper and model building. If the students can’t relate to what’s going on, then you’ve wasted hours of planning.

‘Fun’ tasks do not make up for this. ‘Fun’ tasks will not help students learn better. ‘Fun’ tasks do not establish factual understanding. In fact, if the relationship isn’t there, then I’d go as far as to say they’ll have a negative impact.

In fact, it was Mark McCourt who once said, as part of a discussion to a group of teachers in a conference in York, that one of the best lessons he saw was simply led by a teacher with a whiteboard pen, students with a piece of paper and the quality questioning and discussion that was going on between the former and the latter.

Bring Fluency into the equation, and you’ll have a group of students who are making progress quickly, in a positive learning environment. Who needs ‘fun’?

One final point. There are worrying amount of fads prevailing in education. But it was refreshing to see Bruno Reddy, Kris Boulton, Andrew Smith, David Thomas and others offer their methods based on actual research. Not populism, top down thinking, SLT demands or OFSTED-ism, but proper academic principles. We need to spread the gospel and we need to stand up for what is right and proven against what is fashionable.

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About workedgechaos

Teacher. Critic. Geek.
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