ERO’s February 2013 report Mathematics in Years 4 to 8: Developing a Responsive Curriculum found that many innovative schools had focused on inequity in student achievement. These schools had recognised the need to do something differently to improve outcomes for those who were not achieving well.
The leaders and teachers at MARIST SCHOOL MOUNT ALBERT reduced inequity by abandoning the practice of streaming Years 4 to 6 children based on their perceived mathematics ability and by supporting them to understand the strategies they needed to take greater control of their own learning.
This narrative describes the reasons for the changes and key actions taken by leaders and teachers. It also describes how digital apps were used to reinforce the children’s mathematical learning and build their confidence to solve problems.
Over the past few years the teachers at Marist School, Mount Albert, have significantly changed how they teach mathematics. Most importantly, they have moved away from cross-syndicate streaming and have focused instead on increasing understanding through greater engagement and by teaching children to share their mathematical thinking. Many children now go on to achieve well in mathematics, particularly by the time they reach the end of Year 6.
Following the arrival of the current principal teachers of Years 4 to 6 reviewed their mathematics programme and decided to drop the practice of cross grouping. Each teacher then taught mathematics to their own students, organised into in-classability groups. It became clear to the teachers, however, that no matter how the bottom group was labelled, the children always knew it was the bottom group.
A significant percentage of Year 6 children were working below the expected level for mathematics, and nothing was happening to change this. Concerned, one teacher asked her students to complete a survey. The responses clearly showed the negative impacts of ability grouping. Many of the students had been in the lowest class or group for a long time and had acquired very negative attitudes towards mathematics. They admitted that they avoided doing anything that looked difficult.
To address her students’ underachievement and negativity the teacher decided to focus on building the children’s self-efficacy by increasing their number knowledge. She found that ideas encountered recently in Growth Mindset PLD were very relevant.
“Our principal had the bigger picture about maths grouping and what our grouping was doing for our children and wanted us to have more flexible grouping, where children could learn from each other or could participate in a teaching session targeted at what they needed to learn. We tried it and the sun continued to rise and the sky did not fall. The lowest kids made the most progress as they now had a more positive attitude to maths.”
Another teacher told us how she had been challenged to abandon the practice of putting her Year 5 to 6 class into ability groups for mathematics. With encouragement, and despite her misgivings, she moved to having the children work in mixed-ability pairs or groups and was astonished at how well they progressed. At first she thought that only those who had been in the lower groups would benefit but she found that even the most able mathematicians progressed because they were thinking more deeply about their strategies and searching for alternative ways to help their peers.
Teachers subsequently gave children increased opportunity to explore and understand the strategies they were using to solve mathematics problems. They introduced modelling books and reference charts that they developed collaboratively with the children.
Children negotiated success criteria for each lesson with their teacher, who recorded them on a chart. They then worked in mixed-ability pairs to solve a set of problems before coming back together to share their strategies and solutions. ERO observed that as the children worked they would refer back to the chart to see if they had met all the requirements. They understood that, to be successful, each partner had to be able to explain their solution and justify their reasoning.
Teachers developed the children’s confidence with new strategies by having them teach their peers. In one classroom, the teacher asked six children who had completed problems without checking to teach some of the other children. It helped the six to have to think more deeply about what they were doing, listen to other children and try different strategies. The students took risks and used their errors to improve their learning when working in pairs or small groups.
Children use the charts to see if they have met the success criteria
ERO observed children making good use of Show Me, an app with a voice-recording facility, to demonstrate their mathematical thinking. To extend the students’ use of this tool the teacher showed the class a YouTube clip of another class using the app. The children had been experimenting with the app and had been able to discover many of its features for themselves, which reinforced their self-confidence as explorers and discoverers.
They told us they liked using ShowMe because when they were writing their problem-solving steps down they didn’t have to try to keep them all in their head. The others in their group could see the steps too.
The move away from ability-grouping, along with deliberate teaching about applying strategies, considerably improved the children’s attitudes towards and success with mathematics.