Three Weeks In

I started teaching at a new school 3 weeks ago. Overall, I’m absolutely loving it. My job is more varied than anything I’ve done before and for the first time in my life, I actually look forward to going into work on a Monday.

I’ve been writing the timetable. It has been really interesting to learn how our part time staff prefer to work and try to balance this with providing a balanced week of lessons, alongside management discussions about what proportions staff should work. I’m also excited to lead outdoor education: my climbers seem to be really enjoying our weekly indoor club and I can’t wait to get them out into the mountains proper. It has been great to be involved in discussions about the curriculum: how many periods per week should we give to each subject is not a question I’ve ever considered before.

More mixed has been my work as assessment lead. Inspired by Tom Sherrington, I’ve started with the theme of feedback as actions, sharing some of my own attempts to put this into practice, but I have yet to garner much response from my colleagues. Similarly, initiating the process of collecting pupil data is taking some time.

Despite the fact that I have very few lessons and much more experience in this area, probably the hardest part of my job has been teaching maths! Small class sizes mean that it’s been possible to personalise my teaching more than ever before, and I’m enjoying the opportunity to implement some of the ideas I’ve read about during my nine month break. However, a few issues are challenging me.

1. I’ve never taught mixed-attainment classes before and I’m struggling to find a lot of concrete advice on how to best deal with it.. Do I split the class by task or try to keep them all together? Let the children choose their own tasks or assign them myself? Do I provide extra explicit instruction to some? Should this be within, or in addition to lessons?

This flow chart from @mathsmrgordon has provided some inspiration.

2 . How much to use technology? All my pupils now have a Macbook and iPad. This gives great opportunities, I’ve got them using Desmos, Geogebra and Quizlet, but am I going too far? It’s hard to tell when it’s genuinely educational and when it’s just more fun than pen-on-paper maths. And on that note…

3. I’m following in the footsteps of a teacher who sounds like he was much more fun than me! I’ve heard that he was a great teacher, very inspirational and played lots of games. My insistence on copying down worked examples and setting of written practice and extension tasks sounds pretty boring in comparison. To their credit, the pupils have generally been working very well, but I get a sense that we haven’t fully bonded yet.

Any advice? I’d love to hear it.


I read earlier this year that Japanese teachers spend years perfecting their “Bansho.”  This refers to a specific practice of recording the thought process of the whole class solving problems together.  I just like the idea of a special word for “boardwork” as mine has historically been pretty awful so I’ve decided to improve it.

My one major change: Make notes during lessons on Microsoft Word rather than a traditional whiteboard or equivalent software. I took this idea from a Spanish course I took at Oxford University, where my teacher always made notes on word. I think it has revolutionised my bansho!

Here is a case study on the topic of solving problems by forming quadratic equations, both lessons taught to year 10 classes aiming for A*-A grades.

This is what my boardwork looked like previously:

I’m actually pretty embarrassed about sharing this in public! In fact, this is probably the neatest my handwriting gets. At least I’ve kept my equals in line, and the algebra is fairly legible, but as notes to look back on, I’m dubious about its use to my students.

This is what my boardwork looks like now:

Thanks to equation editor shortcuts, I have learned to type maths pretty much as quickly as I can write it on a board.  You’ll also notice that I can still add hand written steps in, which I usually do by copying and pasting from word to my board software, then back again: slightly clunky, but I can do it fast enough that the students don’t complain!

Of course, part of the difference between the two sets of boardwork is the detail I’ve included has increased in the second example. Typing my notes has encouraged me to write more explanations as well as just the algebra or geometry involved (although some people may think I’ve included too much commentary?). This is probably because I don’t enjoy hand-writing on the board and so I try to avoid it.

What do my students say? They almost universally prefer the new approach. Do you have terrible handwriting? Why not give mathtype a try.

Helen Hindle @ Mr Barton’s Podcast

Having taught in two selective schools in the UK, I have just started teaching in a non-selective school with mixed-attainment classes. So, my first foray back into Craig Barton’s podcast had to be listening to his interview of Helen Hindle.

To start, here are some of the advantages of mixed attainment teaching that Helen mentioned during the podcast:

  • It removes the danger of lower expectations for pupils in lower sets and gives all pupils the opportunity to access the most challenging material.
  • As mixed attainment teaching tends to improve the performance of lower-attaining pupils and setting tends to place pupils from lower socioeconomic groups in lower sets, Helen sees it as more socially just. I agree, although when Helen said, ‘we don’t segregate in the workplace’, I’m not so sure about this: you need a degree to become a teacher…
  • Helen claimed that higher attaining students are more likely to seek out challenge and push themselves, not just be happy to find it easy.
  • Pupils are less worried about asking silly questions, as they’re used to hearing comments with a wider range of sophistication.

I know that the research on setting is inconclusive, but most people seem to agree that bottom sets are bad for the pupils in them, so I definitely think that mixed-attainment classes are worth considering.

One of Helen’s key points is that a different approach is needed for mixed-attainment classes than that used with sets. She talked through three key parts of her sequence of lessons:
Showing the students a ‘learning journey’ with relevant questions helps pupils to choose material appropriate for them, and to see their progress clearly.
Inquiries help to build the teacher’s picture of pupils prior attainment, as well as giving a sense of the whole class staying together, even when many pupils are working on different tasks.
The tasks Helen uses are either self-selected from a variety of options or multiple entry point / low threshold, high ceiling.

Having never taught mixed attainment classes, I think it’s fair to say that Craig was a little sceptical of this approach and was playing devil’s advocate even more than usual! Here are some of his questions, and Helen’s responses.

What if pupils select inappropriate work?
Part of the teacher’s role is to check and redirect if necessary. Choosing appropriate tasks is a life skill that pupils need to gain.

What about a single top set / streaming / exam years / bottom set?
Top set: are you removing the extra challenge for the rest of the pupils? What about the fact that different pupils have different start points in different topics?

Isn’t it better for teacher to focus all their effort on explaining one idea?
Whole class explanations aren’t necessarily better. I would add that in a small group, the instruction can be better tailored to the individual pupils. Once the teacher has helped some higher-attaining pupils, they can disseminate this knowledge throughout the class and they will benefit from this. Lower attaining students could gain from listening to explanation of more advanced material (I’m a little dubious about this), or could be doing something different.

Is it harder work for the teacher?
It would be harder if you just used the same approach as you did for sets classes, but if you change your approach as suggested, it isn’t necessarily more difficult.

Don’t the highest and lowest attaining students get more support in sets?
Perhaps the top set, but pupils in bottom sets experience lower expectations and worse behaviour. In a class of twenty students all struggling, there is still only one teacher.

What about non-specialist maths teachers?
In Helen’s department, resources are planned collaboratively, which makes it easier for non-specialist maths teachers. This also sounds like something I would really enjoy being part of, though I also know plenty of teachers who would rather work independently.

Craig also asked Helen about her promotion of a growth mindset. I really liked a couple of things Helen said here:
Referring to how students are sometimes asked to use Red, Amber, Green to describe how they feel about the work they’re doing: “Green is the target, but amber is when you’re learning.”
And secondly, that she aims to: “change pupils perception of what constitutes success”. It made me think back to a discussion I had with Greg Ashman, in which he pointed me to research showing that learners are most motivated by success. If this is the case, then what constitutes success is very important.

I have two questions of my own:

In his podcast conversation with Craig, Dylan William encouraged keeping the class together, rather than spreading them out. This also seems to be the driving idea behind the ‘mastery’ approach and the focus of Craig’s research section on differentiation. Helen did make reference to this, through class discussion/inquiry and pupils explaining ideas to each other. However, it sounds like pupils are often working on different material, counter to this advice. I’d like to know of any studies / personal experience in which differentiation was successful and what made it effective?

Similarly to most schools that I’ve visited, it sounds like Helen’s scheme of work spends several weeks on one topic before moving on. I feel that this fails to allow for a sufficiently spiral curriculum, where each topic is revisited (and added to gradually) at least every year and mostly once or twice per term. So, will I have time within my short (3-4 hour) sequences to apply some of Helen’s ideas?

On my to do list: Look into the mixed attainment maths conference and spend some more time reading the mixed-attainment website.

Thanks Craig and Helen. As ever, it was enlightening.