The Helix Approach. UK Maths vs. The World

How to get better at teaching Maths; a whole school approach.

As educators we can all appreciate that a solid mathematical foundation can not only enhance learning in many subjects, it is also a commonly used key skill in a variety of forms across our working and social life.

The UK traditionally underperforms in the international Maths tables, ranked 27th out of 70 countries. This is based on Maths attainment taken at the age of 15. Also in comparison to other countries, fewer students decide to take the studying of Maths beyond high school.

Michael Gove, a number of years ago now, announced proposals to really shake up how we in the UK taught Maths. With proposals which called for clearer and tougher targets on times tables, arithmetic and fractions. This was an attempt to replicate some of the practices of East Asian countries (four of which are in the top ten countries for Maths). Despite these proposals and desires from Mr. Gove, a decrease in the average point score of our high school children has still happened.

Based on the same data, 22 per cent of 15-year-olds in the UK do not reach the baseline level of achievement – which means they cannot solve problems which adults routinely get faced with in day to day tasks. There is also some disparity when you split the data in home nations:
England: 493
NI: 493
Scotland: 491
Wales: 478

It doesn’t take a high performing mathematician to tell us, to get it right by the time children reach the final years of high school, we need to be getting it right across the board at primary level. A return to rote learning was meant to address this, however although I can see when it has it’s benefits (times tables for instance), it’s not going to benefit children across the multiple Mathematical topics they are expected to be fluent in by the time they begin high school.

The helix approach is an increasingly found idea, which is meant to ensure continual revision and progression through logical, but little, steps with key aims of mastery each year. Rather than simply reviewing the same things until all pupils have it memorised, this helix approach allows for continual development to challenge the most able learners, while also continuing to revisit earlier areas of knowledge for those who may struggle with maths.

Having worked in education for a number of years now, I wanted to put this approach into practice. From this I have identified a few different ways in which you can enhance the process of teaching maths – and enhance the process of children learning comprehensively.

1) Us, as educators need to take a few more risks, remove prior beliefs about what is difficult in maths (Long Division!) and put it on it’s head. Bring back the excitement and passion for Maths, really experiment with ways to truly re-engage the pupils. This re-engagement could be a vital consideration for the teacher as well!

2) Move away from the focus on numeracy. Try to bring a sense of exploration of ideas and concepts to develop a stronger passion, and foundation, for Maths. This is something which international research studies have found, the strongest in the field of mathematics encourage their pupils to think creatively and mathematically at the same time – and from an early age. This should allow the flexibility of understanding increasingly difficult maths, whereas in comparison: memorising facts and figures does not.

3) Professional Development. Never stop building on, learning from, and ‘stealing’ the best ideas from your own personal research. This type of sharing good practice is vital to ensure the message of ‘the best’ teaching practices gets out to all teachers. There are so many people developing, discussing and sharing their good practices on twitter, Facebook and others nowadays. A short search will put you onto a good thing! (My twitter is: @MrOzzyMaths).

4) Leadership. You, your year leader, your Maths co-ordinator, you head teacher, they all need to take on the leadership of new initiatives to improve and enhance the teaching of Maths. Whether that is through the facilitation of training opportunities, support colleagues who do take risks, intervene when problems arise, monitor and discuss progress and methods.

Ultimately, you need to do all of this, then prepare a new style of lesson based on all these considerations. Following the Key Steps to a successful Maths Lesson Study:

1) Set ultimate aim for the lesson study
(What do you/your school want to achieve)

2) Address specific objectives you would like to meet
(E.g. Looking for ways to improve confidence when working on word problems)

3) As a group, plan a research lesson which fits in with 1 and 2 in the steps.

4) Teach the lesson, with the others members of the group observing.
(It is vital each individual carries out a detailed consideration of how it went, and what needs to be altered)

5) Feed back as a group and create an action plan for wider discussion, and for use in the next cycle of lesson study.

6) With a different member of the group delivering the lesson, follow steps 4 and 5.

This process can then be repeated as necessary, however it can be repeated numerous times and then decided it is no use. It could be used, be a complete success and then used to roll out to the whole school as a new way to deliver Maths and re-engage pupils. Your aim is to inspire real passion for Maths, and develop a child’s flexibility and independence.

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