How I’ve voluntarily changed my teaching this year and the impact this has had on low ability pupils

I’ve had to change certain things about the way I teach many times over the years to suit the many and varied policy changes, whims of OFSTED and vagaries of the many leaders I have worked for. I have recently changed my marking as we have the joy of a new marking policy for example.

Not many of those changes have been voluntary though and the longer I have taught for the fewer have been the voluntary changes I have made to my practice.

One change I have made this year is to get a lot more use out of things like the excellent diagnostic questions website.

The other is the one I am writing about in this post.

For most of my teaching career I have employed different methods to teach low ability pupils and SEN pupils than my brightest pupils.

This is partly because I have always been told to. It is partly because I always viewed this as a necessary part of differentiation. It is partly because I thought the different groups would learn better if I taught them differently but it is mostly because I thought the lowest ability pupils would not be able to cope with the way I teach my more able pupils.

This year I am trying something different with classes of all abilities. Not in every lesson but just where I feel it’s appropriate. Initially it was an idea I had for getting more out of the lowest ability pupils but then it occurred to me that it would be interesting to see what would happen across the board.

I put everything they need to know for a lesson on the board. This is what their working out should look like at every stage of the solution. I talk them through it.

While this is hardly revolutionary I have to plan in more detail because I am not intending to give further help if a pupil gets stuck. That means I have to think in more detail about what I am asking of the pupils and what I am going to put on the board than I usually might to ensure that everything fits together and that the level of detail is right. I also had to rethink the seating plans.

I then tell all the pupils who feel able to to start their work. They start in silence initially. Generally the first thing they do is copy the key examples. This is because I ask the class if anyone would like 1 or 2 more examples before getting started and require silence if anybody would like further explanation. Once the further explanation has been given I tell them that will get no further explanation because they now have all the information they need to answer the questions. The most they will get from me is a prompt.

Once everyone has started. I go round the class marking and prompting. Should someone ask for help I refer them back to the examples on the board. They have to tell me specifically which step they need help with. I get them to show me where they are up to on the model solution. If they are not sure I prompt them and ask them from looking at the examples what they think they should do next. They key is that I don’t tell them anything that isn’t already on the board. I often find that when someone puts their hand up someone sitting next to them goes through it with them if they are waiting for more than a minute or so. I still check to make sure they know what they are doing when this happens.

The outcomes have been quite interesting. Initially none of my classes really liked these lessons. There was a period of training them into it. The more able classes got used to these lessons pretty quickly. The least able took a little longer to get used to the idea (as expected) but I persevered and now they really like them.

I am very pleased with the progress the least able pupils are making and the way in which their confidence is growing. I have also been pleasantly surprised by how much they can do on their own and how much more willing they are to try than they used to be.

When I asked the low ability pupils why they like the lessons better they said things like:

  1. When they figure things out for themselves it makes them feel smarter.
  2. When I tell them that I know they can do it without help I make them feel smarter.
  3. Needing help all the time makes them feel dumb
  4. Not understanding what to do makes them feel dumb
  5. Being told the answer makes them feel dumb
  6. Being taught in the same way as top sets makes them feel smart
  7. When they do all the work on their own they remember it better
  8. It’s not fun exactly but maths is better than before (damning with faint praise?)
  9. It’s still boring but at least I’m learning more

I’m beginning to think that in the past I have asked too little of my low ability pupils. By giving them too much support and scaffolding and by helping them too much at too early a stage I may have held them back. By not allowing the low ability pupils to be stuck for any length of time and by intervening at a very early stage if they were struggling I may have inadvertently hindered their ability to work effectively.

That’s not to say they haven’t made progress and generally done ok but I can’t help wondering how much better they might have done had I asked a bit more of them.

This had led me to ask myself why I have scaffolded so much for them and why I have not expected them to figure more things out for themselves.

  1. I have been concerned that if they can’t do the work it will put them off maths (more than they were already)
  2. I have been concerned that their behaviour would be awful if they could not do the work.
  3. I have been reluctant to ignore all the advice on various IEPs and school documents and training sessions about teaching low ability pupils and pupils with SEN.
  4. What I’ve always done has been quite successful and so I didn’t particularly want to try something that might not work.

The downside of these lessons is that I spend twice as long thinking about what questions I am going to give them and what examples I am going to put on the board. I put a lot more time into structuring the examples in a way all the pupils are highly likely to understand.

I also look through their books in more detail to make sure I have good grasp of what they will understand which also takes time. I found that without doing so these lessons don’t really work.

I am yet to be observed teaching in this way so it remains to be seen what the leadership of the school think.

I also employ the Bigkid Taxonomy which helps things along 🙂




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