Sins of the classroom revisited…

Personalisation and differentiation is the order of the day isn’t it?

Imagine a year five classroom, where the teacher has identified the progress every child has made, and tailored the lesson for each of them. When the main input begins, some are straight off to a task, while others stay on for extra support after the teaching. In the main session some are working in small groups, others work independently but on a common task, while some have a specific task just for them to meet their needs, whether more or less able. Some form of self-assessment lets the children identify their own success, and when children struggle they can call on professional support for near-immediate personalised feedback; when work is progressing well, a new challenge is set.

Sounds almost too good to be true doesn’t it? An outstanding lesson, maybe?

Peak MathsIt describes some of my year five maths lessons pretty well. But I don’t mean my, naturally, excellent teaching… I’m talking about me, as a second-year in middle school under the tutelage of Miss Ashworth. With the aid of Peak Maths. The form of self-assessment we used was checking the answer book. And the personalised feedback? We could line up at the desk for help when we were going wrong.

We wouldn’t countenance it, would we? It’d be lucky to scrape RI, let alone outstanding. Can you imagine offering such an experience up for your appraisal observation? Although I can’t quite put my finger on why.

Now, I’m not proposing an “it never did me any harm” line here. I was only 9 so maybe I missed some aspect that would make it unacceptable. But doesn’t it show something about where we’ve ended up? There are plenty of schools who would happily demand 5 different activities for different abilities, why not 6… Or 12? You could do that with Peak. The kids who got it could get on, those who needed more support got it. It sounds almost idyllic.

Of course, reality is that times change, and every system has its flaws. But is it just possible that there were some positives here?

Would a couple of minutes waiting for personalised help in a queue (a sight you’d never see in today’s Ofsted-ready classrooms) be a better use of time than children working on a low-level task to ensure that enough levels of differentiation were evident?

Would a bit of time working from a text book be more constructive than rolling dice to make questions, the answers to which your teacher won’t check until the next day?

Might the opportunity for immediate feedback for all help to reduce the marking workload of teachers while supporting the learning of children?

I’m not suggesting we all run every lesson like this – Miss Ashworth certainly didn’t. But might we do well to stop and question whether or not our “improvements” are quite as great as we imagine? Maybe the occasional queue at the teacher’s desk might not be such a bad thing?

10 thoughts on “Sins of the classroom revisited…

  1. Faye 5 March 2015 at 6:31 pm Reply

    I grew up on Peak Maths …got a masters degree in maths eventually so I guess it didn’t do too much harm! Interesting thought there…….

  2. JdV 5 March 2015 at 6:45 pm Reply

    I regularly end up with short queues in Maths lessons. I always hope that nobody important walks in but my children love the ‘nearly’ instant feedback. However I’m probably just old fashioned. I was probably teaching at the same time as your miss Ashworth although we were using SMP cards!

    • Michael Tidd 5 March 2015 at 6:50 pm Reply

      I love a rebel.
      Twas the happy days of 1988-9. I remember in the third year she became the first person I knew to have Sky! Showed us recorded footage of the San Fran Earthquake from Sky News!

  3. tgillat 5 March 2015 at 8:44 pm Reply

    Funny I have been reminiscing myself!!

  4. Abigail Greig 6 March 2015 at 2:00 pm Reply

    I well remember my induction into maths teaching in 1990 when, in reply to my question ‘How do we teach maths?’ (in a Y3 class), my mentor’s said, ‘Start on Peak 0, P1, and go from there!’ I do. however, also remember using SPMG maths, with at least 3 different text books being used at any given time and most children working on a totally different aspect of maths than anyone in the class (if that’s mathematically possible). It led to 3 or 4 children happily getting on and a queue of 25+ children asking for help. The ‘clever’ ones would get to the back of the queue and by the time they got to the front, the lesson was over. Could have been a reflection on my maths ‘teaching’, but I for one thought it a revolution when we were introduced to whole class teaching!

    • Michael Tidd 6 March 2015 at 5:42 pm Reply

      As with all things – it’s never as black and white as one thing good, another thing bad.

  5. julietgreen 7 March 2015 at 8:50 pm Reply

    Now imagine how you might marry that with the enhancements possible through technology and you have a system that could genuinely tick most of the boxes.

  6. Mr Bancroft 8 March 2015 at 2:19 pm Reply

    I often think about how I was taught maths. It sounds as if I was taught like you – follow a text book. I can’t remember which one it was. But I loved the competitive element – trying to get through the book as quickly as you can. Like you, my teacher would quickly pull us up if we needed to be. It was the same in English as well in terms of learning about grammar and punctuation. It worked for me as I love Maths and and am a stickler for SPAG type things, but I don’t know if it would suit everyone. But when you think about it, everything was differentiated, it was clear to show progress and learning was independent!

  7. Mark Williams 15 March 2015 at 9:07 pm Reply

    I’m sure your tongue is in your cheek, but one of the areas NCETM are really focusing on at the moment is high quality textbooks in classrooms.

    Didn’t we experiment a lot with self-directed learning in the late 90s, when all these new-fangled computers would teach the maths for us and children would progress at an individual rate.

    I was a Kumon teacher (well assistant anyway) before I qualified as a teacher, and that was a system completely based on a child working at their own rate of progress. It also featured mastery, in the limited sense of repeating every level until you were accurate and fast enough to move on. What it lacked was the thing that makes maths wonderful – the shared experience of learning together.

    • Michael Tidd 15 March 2015 at 9:54 pm Reply

      Tongue in cheek indeed, but I do think that as with most things, either extreme is probably a mistake, and ruling either out completely equally so!

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