The future of maths is a lot brighter

Written by Sarah Seleznyov

I began working with Let’s Think Maths over 15 years ago.  It was a time when it was the norm to split children up by ability, through task differentiation five ways in primary schools and through setting in secondary school.  Procedural teaching was the main focus, with a weekly open-ended problem thrown in, often an unstructured one with no teaching of problem solving strategies.  Talk was not expected in maths lessons, instead it was ‘heads down’, each pupil concentrating on the worksheet they had been given, some moving on to the final challenge at the end of the lesson, usually an opportunity to apply the procedural practice they had been undertaking.  In many classrooms, success mattered and mistakes weren’t wanted.

At that time, Let’s Think Maths was like a breath of fresh air, especially for those pupils who had been labelled as ‘low ability’ and resigned to a continual daily intake of lower order number skills practice.  And for the teachers, it was a radically new approach: it was exploratory, many solutions were valid, all pupils could engage and the lowest achievers could shine, by coming up with creative solutions to the problems the class was trying to tackle.   Teachers on Let’s Think professional development programmes found that not only were mistakes and misconceptions interesting to explore, they enabled more effective follow-on teaching.  And they found that teaching in mixed achieving groups really made a difference to the quality of learning, especially for the lowest achievers.

So much has changed since that time, and in the majority of maths classrooms.  The radical approaches to teaching mathematics that Let’s Think proposed have become mainstream thanks to a combination of government initiatives and high impact research projects.  Much as we might criticise the DFE’s obsession with and simplistic understanding of international policy borrowing, their focus on mastery mathematics has changed hearts and minds in terms of the value of problem solving, exploring multiple methods, teaching in mixed achieving groups, and the potential for low threshold – high ceiling lessons like Let’s Think.  The DFE has also re-opened the debate about the need for maths to be taught though carefully planned curriculum sequences as exemplified in textbooks and in the Let’s Think Maths schemata.  The Best Practice In Grouping Students research project, led by Professor Becky Francis, has radically changed the way we think about grouping pupils: for the first time, we are seeing huge numbers of secondary schools moving away from early setting in Year 7 towards mixed achieving classes.  The University of Cambridge Dialogic Teaching project has demonstrated the importance of classroom talk across the curriculum, but particularly in mathematics.

Let’s Think Maths now fits smoothly into the curriculum and pedagogies of many teachers of mathematics.  And we would like to think that as an organisation advocating changes to the teaching of mathematics over several decades, we played a part in achieving these changes to practice.  I often bump into senior government advisers or mathematics experts in senior roles in mathematics organisations, who remember their CAME training well, and say it continues to inspire them.

As Let’s Think Maths now aligns much more easily with the curricula and pedagogies schools are already using, it makes integration a lot simpler for teachers and for pupils.  Lessons are frequently used by teachers to assess: What do they already know and so what should I teach? Have they really learnt what I think I have taught?  The lessons also support the reasoning concept building that a standard mastery curriculum requires.  And the professional development programme is now one that includes many of the recommended research proven approaches to teacher learning:  it has duration, includes opportunities to apply learning into the classroom, operates in iterative cycles of practice and reflection, and is collaborative.

The future is brighter for pupils in mathematics lessons – and we hope it continues to move in the right direction with Let’s Think as a key partner.