I spent this morning in a class of Year 7 (grade 6) children in a local secondary school.

The class is called a “Nurture Group” which is an interesting term because the children all have so-called “learning problems”, which is to say that they are underachieving in terms of our National Curriculum Levels.

These children also have attendant behavioural, attendance and social problems which may be considered as reasons that they have the progress problems in the first place. Some of them have come from different countries and many of these have experienced difficult situations in their past relating to things like war, disease and famine.

I have been working with them to help them to learn mathematics. Their teacher is someone who asked for assistance because she felt that the children were not achieving anything in being taught in a didactic manner from textbooks that many of them could not read no mind understand.

I had attended a number of lessons in the last academic year in which I saw a similar class being told to draw a line of a specific measurement and then lay a protractor down on the line and construct an angle of a certain size. If they achieved this they were then told that they had to do another fifteen questions of the same sort! They were then given fifteen drawn angles and asked to measure them.

At the end of the last academic year I got together with the teacher and we decided that we were not going to repeat this kind of approach in the current academic year. We decided that we would set out with one intention above all else….. to make the learning of mathematics fun!

In order to do this we decided that we had to do the following things:

(1) Make it practical and hands on

(2) Let them talk to each other and work with each other and not sit in singular silos

(3) Link the learning to the real world and their own experience as much as possible

We worked together on putting together lesson plans based on the topics in geography and history that the children would be studying this term. The mathematics would follow the national curriculum in that we would have opportunities to calculate, measure, solve problems, deal with shapes and their properties and, in some ways the most important aspect, bearing in mind the world we now live in, to construct and analyse data.

These aspects of mathematics would be seen in respect of the subjects that they were studying.

We started today with measures. We did not dive into some textbook aspect of measuring using a ruler or a protractor or a measuring jug… no…we talked about a numberline and how it is seen in so many aspects of their lives… it can be seen as a thermometer if they are ill, as an analogue clock to tell them it is breaktime and the amount of water that has to be added in order to make something in cooking. This is not to forget their trusty ruler which was not just to draw straight lines to underline the date in their workbooks!

We will eventually show them a numberline in respect of the scales that they will be looking at on the maps that they are starting their geography with and we will get them to investigate how the jumps on the line can be what you want them to be as long as each marker and the small markers within the markers is the same distance apart!

Today they looked at the concept of equal markers by using Cuisenaire Rods. They started by seeing how the one block doubles to a Red 2 and then a Green 3….. they could understand how they could make up 4 by adding 3 and 1 or six by adding 5 and 1 (or 2 3’s). They were not taught any of this… they investigated, they talked and they discovered.

One child in particular became very excited by the process and was able to answer the questions that had been put (can you make up 17, and 19….. how many ways?). The relationship of each rod unit being 1cm in length then came into play and some children began to measure their books and their pens (using different rods that they now knew the value of).

At the end of the lesson there was a real buzz around the class. These were the mathematical “failures” the ones who caused all the problems and could not learn. But they were learning and most importantly they were enjoying their learning. So much so that one child wanted to continue his investigations into his own breaktime!

The teacher’s role was one of going from group to group and asking questions or stating how impressed he was with the children’s thinking. There were no behaviour problems, there were no children unable to read a textbook or understand what it was asking them to do. There was no direct teaching by the teacher… only a request to investigate and some probing questions as he travelled around. There was a noticeable rise in confidence by the children in their ability to think and understand the mathematics and this will become more and more applied to the real world they live in as they progress throughout the year.

We set out in our planning with the intention of letting the children enjoy their mathematics, to learn in a way that suits them and we feel, to achieve much more than they would have done by the old-fashioned didactic, textbook driven system… I will keep you posted about how they progress.