The Joy of Learning

Written by Alan Edmiston

For the past two years I have been on an interesting professional journey and it is one that has been characterised by great joy. So much so that I have called this reflective blog “The joy of learning”. From the outset there are three people I need to acknowledge:

  • Mundher Adhami, my mentor and author of the Thinking Maths materials,
  • Kay Wetherall, the Maths Lead at Harry Watts Academy, an ASD school in Sunderland and,
  • James Philips a colleague who works in a special school in the South West of England.


Each of the individuals named above provides a key piece of the jigsaw that allows me to articulate a view of learning that is now more inclusive of joy. Since 2021 I have worked almost solely in special schools, for both the NCETM and STEM Learning, which included opportunities for me to teach a range of children at different developmental stages. For purposes of simplicity I will frame my reflections around a single lesson I taught with Kaye’s class of Year 8 boys, many of whom, in terms of mathematics, are working at the level of a typical Year 3 child. I needed to teach so that I could better understand the nature of autism in relation to the learning of mathematics. The lesson I chose to teach on my first visit was called ‘Feeding Fish’ which involves images such as the one below:

The aim is not to focus here upon the lesson in any great detail but rather to illustrate how it’s coincidental use has caused me reconsider an aspect of Let’s Think practice that is termed ‘concrete preparation’. First let me recount what happened during the lesson with Kaye’s Year 8 class. As they returned from play time (I use this term rather than break for they really do play) I noticed that their attention was fixed on a video Kaye chose for them to watch, showing scenes of tropical fish swimming in an aquarium. She explained that this was their ‘interest’ and she always played it, as it helped them to regulate and settle. I began to smile as I showed her the above resource, and so, when I began by asking them if they knew anything about fish, they gave me their full attention. One boy, Ryan, shared how he helped his grandfather look after his, and others similarly volunteered personal information about all aspects of fish life and death. To say they were now prepared to engage with the activities I had in mind would be an understatement!

Later that year, when talking to James Philips about teaching in special schools I noticed that he used a particular phrase to describe his teaching. This phrase stems from the fact that many autistic children have special interests that often consume their thoughts and attention. James said that such interests can be a route to engage them and to focus their attention. The term he was so careful to use was ‘within their realm’ and he was able to describe how he uses this idea to support his lesson planning for KS3 and 4 mathematics. It was clear that he makes sure any maths he is planning is actually real and within both the experience and interest of the young people he teaches.


These two episodes got me thinking about concrete preparation and its role in my current practice. I had the privilege to know Philip Adey (one of the authors of the original Let’s Think Science materials at KS3) and once heard him describe this aspect of Let’s Think pedagogy as: “a phase in which the language of the problem is introduced and also the context in which the problem is set. This is to ensure that the difficulties encountered are not compounded by problems of language or context.” As I began my Let’s Think journey I viewed this as the need to give pupils the language tools they might need in the lesson and ensuring clarity regarding the aims of what was to come. I can be ambiguous and so I do work hard at being clear. But recently I have come to realise the importance of the ideas of Moll, a Vygotskian scholar, who argues that children carry ‘funds of knowledge’ with them into the classroom. Such ‘funds’ refer to the knowledge and skills, both historically accumulated and culturally developed, that pupils naturally acquire as part of their life experience.


My understanding regarding this was further deepened during the years I spent with Mundher Adhami and the multitude of different ways he would use to articulate the structure of Let’s Think Maths lessons. The model that particularly caught my attention, and the one I have tried to represent diagrammatically, is shown below:


I like this model, as for me it captures the fact that Let’s Think Maths lessons have a sequential, rising cognitive demand i.e. a low floor and a high ceiling, and that this takes place over time, resulting from pupils engaging with the thinking agenda of the lesson. Similarly it highlights the fact that each episode has a very different feel which can be planned for, which is why I include concrete preparation as a key descriptive feature of episode 1.


These encounters coupled with my current experiences of Let’s Think practice in special schools have enabled me to reflect upon the following three areas of influence:

  1. Kaye’s class’s level of engagement stemming from a deep personal interest in the context chosen to introduce the mathematics;
  2. James’s use of the term ‘within their realm’ as a label to help articulate the nature of learner;
  3. and Mundher’s diagram, revealing the fact that Let’s Think Maths lessons often begin with a period of engagement where the mathematics is hidden within the context used to start the learning journey;

and to view them as streams flowing together to support a deeper understanding of engaging children. This has been further catalysed by the very special pupils I am now encountering some 32 years after teaching my first Let’s Think Science lesson.


It’s a sad realisation but I now see more clearly than ever how false the classroom is for many, and here I include my own children. In addition to this, the behaviour norms and learned compliance only serve to blind us to the fact that many are not simply engaged in those treasured lessons we so carefully plan.


In special schools, it is obvious that the classroom norms present in many mainstream schools do not work and I have now seen many incidents where the ‘funds of interest’ that pupils bring with them enable lessons to be tailored to meet their needs. A common piece of advice often given to mainstream teachers by special school colleagues is to get to know their pupils, using their EHCP, for example, so that they can bring these ‘interests’ into the lesson as a way to really engage and motivate pupils.


The result of this knowledge is joy, pure joy and engagement in a way I so rarely observe in the mainstream secondary classroom.  I have seen more unfiltered joy and experienced so many more fist bumps in the past three years than the previous twenty and this level of enjoyment is making me seriously take stock of my classroom practice.


Moll & Whitmore, 1993,  Lessons from research with language-minority children,

Journal of Reading Behaviour, Volume 26, number 4