Maths sets??????????????????

To set or not to set that is the question.

This issue is always at the back of my mind. We are a school that is run on fairly traditional lines, no creative curriculum or funny topic titles here!!! But we do make every link we can and our curriuclum was praised by Ofsted as being a model for others to copy. Part of our traditional ethos is that like many other schools we set by ability for maths. We began to set in KS2 about 15 years ago but it was about 6 or 7 years ago that it was also decided that we would set in year 2 as well (before I was maths coordinator I hasten to add).

I have always had very mixed feelings about maths setting, especially in KS1. A previous maths consultant who I admired greatly was dead against it and I’m probably influenced by his views to a certain extent. However matters came to a head when our year 1 staff decided that they wanted to set as well. My reaction was ‘over my dead body’ but I had to explain why.

I asked around but I couldn’t find any real evidence to back up my gut reaction that it was just a bad idea. Research seems to be inconclusive although there does seem to be evidence that it is bad for children’s self esteem, unsurprisingly. I managed to fight my corner and mostly they were OK with my decision which the head said was mine to make.

However yesterday I received my copy of There’s an Elephant in the Classroom by Jo Boaler and that has got my mind racing again. She is adamant that setting in primary schools is a bad thing and gives the damning statistic that 88% of children who are placed in a lower set in the early years remain in a lower set throughout their school career with very negative effects on their performance in maths and their attitude towards the subject. She argues persuasively and gives lots of evidence as to why setting is such a bad idea. Her theory is that you teach in a more open ended manner and provide lots of investigative work for the children to do rather than lots of exercises in a text book.

That sounds great but how would it work in practice? In my class in September I would have levels 1 to a secure 4 in maths. How could I support all of those different abilities successfully? Investigations are great but at some point you have to teach the skills that the children need to be able to do the investigation. Boaler herself says that there are areas such as multiplication that have to be learned and practised often before the ideas can be properly understood. That practice has to be targetted at the correct level so that it is useful to all the children.

So my dilemma remains unsolved. I feel that setting is not the best way to deliver the maths curriculum but until I can work out how to successfully teach a class of widely differing abilities I will not rock the boat……………….yet.

I have to say that the book is excellent. Very thought provoking and easy to read, unlike some that I have read recently! Definitely worth looking at for anyone interested in maths teaching.


New Technology – Good or Bad?

I know I’m a technophobe at heart. I would much rather read a piece of paper than a screen and talk to people face to face than via email. I find it hard to keep up with the pace of change and the way that it seems to be escalating is actually quite scary.

Some parts of it are great. The fact that there is an online community out there, of which this is a tiny part, is a brilliant resource. The way that ideas can be shared instantly across the world is nothing short of amazing. However I do think that there is a downside to all of this.

The first is money. Schools are being divided more than ever by the haves and the have nots. There are schools using itouches to engage children and ever more sophisiticated programmes to enhance their teaching. And then there are the others that are still operating on the single classroom computer and weekly access to a suite or equivalent to deliver the ICT curriculum (no prizes for guessing which camp I’m in). Books were expensive but not as prohibitively so as computers and their software. There is no way that schools like ours can keep up with some schools that I know of. The experiences of children in the two sets of schools will be totally different and I wonder what that will mean for them in the long term. Our children start at a disadvantage already and I fear it will get worse for them despite our best efforts.

And then there are the bigger long term effects and their implications. There is already talk of people’s minds being altered to work in different ways because of technology. The idea that people will not be able to concentrate on one thing for any length of time as our brains become more used to browsing lots of different sites at once is slightly scary.

I read an article today which I thought was fascinating.

Hal Crowther talks about the effects of modern technology on American children and teenagers and the news doesn’t seem to be good.

I wonder where we’re headed. And whether I want to go there!

Summer Reading

I promised myself that during the holidays I would get around to doing some of the recommeded reading that we are supposed to be doing as part of MaST. The trouble is where to start? We have various articles that we are supposed to read and reflect on as well as long list of books. As most students are currently on holiday, the university shelves were well stocked so the difficulty was deciding what to read first.

In the end I went for a book on misconceptions as it sounded interesting as well as Pattern in the Teaching and Learning of Mathematics by Anthony Orton. I chose this as Pattern is one of the five ‘big’ ideas on our course but it is an area that has never really inspired me. I don’t think that I’ve ever really got to grips with pattern as a concept. When I do work on patterns with the children it always seems like a fairly closed activity so I hoped this would give me greater insight.

The next task was actually settling down to doing the reading itself. I had a day yesterday where I spent a lot of hours sitting on various trains so I resisted the temptation to pack a novel and took the pattern book and a note pad.

The book is actually a series of articles on research that has been carried out on working with pattern with children. It is 10 years old now so some of the references to current practice are out of date (this was a problem with a lot of the books in the library).

The early chapters dealing with younger children were easy enough to understand but I did start to get lost with the later ideas that related more to secondary work.

The main thrust of the book for me is that the teaching of pattern is important in giving children an entry into algebra which is an area of maths that is perceived as difficult ( I would agree strongly with this).

There was also an interesting chapter on how seeing patterns in numbers is a strong help in being able to perform calculations mentally. This was one of the chapters that suffered from being out of date as I think that the ideas are generally accepted now and teachers do use patterns a lot in teaching number bonds.

Now I’ve got to decide what to read next!