Tuesday, 17 April 2018

ERO Report: Teaching Strategies that work - Mathematics

I'm currently catching up on some professional reading and today's topic was Maths. Reading the Education Review Office (ERO) report on teaching strategies that work in Mathematics was challenging at times. This report " features strategies and approaches that we observed in 40 primary schools selected from across New Zealand. These schools came from a database of 129 schools, all with rolls of 200 or more, in which the proportion of students in the upper primary years (Years 5 to 8) achieving at or above the national standard had increased. In each case achievement levels were also above average for the decile."

The strategy that stood out most to me was: abandon ability groupings. As a primary teacher for over 10 years, this was pretty much all I'd ever done in Maths! If you'd asked me prior to today, I would have assumed that this was hands down the best approach, too. Having embraced the Numeracy Project and all it entails, maths groups seemed a given.

However, my reading today would suggest that this is not the best approach because grouping by ‘ability’, whether in-class or across classes, disadvantages students. This was a key finding of Mathematics in Years 4 to 8: Developing a responsive curriculum (February 2013). Students in the 'lower' group are often denied access to the whole curriculum and had negative perceptions about their mathematical ability reinforced. Streaming children into different classes for mathematics
also separates mathematics from the rest of the curriculum.

By abandoning ability grouping, ERO investigators found that teachers discovered "children in mixed-ability groups had greater understanding of their learning, were better able to recognise achievement and progress, and knew what they had to do to improve. Many of those who had previously been in ‘bottom’ groups talked to us about how their confidence in and enjoyment of mathematics had increased since working in flexible, mixed-ability groups."

Even better than that is that "teachers saw that mixed-ability grouping practices also had benefits for more able mathematicians, who, when working with peers, had to think deeply about alternative solutions." Talk about win-win!

It's not obvious in the report, but I can also see how principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) would really apply to these mixed ability groups. I LOVED the example given of one lesson using the flexible-groupings approach:

The teacher then introduced the day’s activities and asked the children to select the difficulty level and decide whether they would work on them independently or in a group. To cater for a range of capabilities the teacher had prepared ‘packs’ at three different levels of difficulty, ready for the children to download to their digital devices.
  1. The teacher explained that the first pack was quite challenging and then used her device to provide a preview of the contents. The problem solving activities in the last section were the most challenging, she pointed out.
  2. In previewing the second pack the teacher explained that it was easier than the first but also had some potentially challenging problem solving at the end.
  3. The third pack was for children who still felt they needed help with telling the time. It contained no difficult problems.

Think about it: I'd normally prepare three different groups' work - why not give the kids some control over their learning? The students had also been explicitly taught how to help someone else when they were stuck, which I see as a key part of this strategy. Interestingly none of the students selected the third pack in this lesson.

It's certainly made me think about what I would do differently the next time I was in charge of a class - what about you?

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