Sunday, 11 March 2018


Yesterday, 400 maths teachers from across the UK descended upon Kettering in Northamptonshire for #MathsConf14.

The day follows months of planning and organisation by my fantastic team at La Salle, with a flowchart of logistical issues to address as long as my arm.  The team tirelessly put together an event of the highest standards – and they do this four times per year!

When I started MathsConf, I wanted to introduce a new forum to the mathematics education landscape – one where practising classroom teachers were given a platform to discuss, explore and refine their own theories.  All teachers of mathematics have theories, though many don’t realise that they do.  All teachers of mathematics carry out thousands of complex decisions each day, gradually refining their practice based on these micro-experiments, reading, research and learning from other teachers and experts.

The landscape had been one dominated by events where those who do not teach (many who never have) told teachers how to teach.  As a teacher, I always found it odd that the balance at mathematics education events was so skewed.  It is, of course, really important that teachers engage with mathematics educators who have long since left the classroom in pursuit of research and to expand the canon of mathematics education knowledge.  But the lack of teacher-to-teacher discourse always bothered me.

I wanted to address this by creating a new type of event.  One where the audience was almost exclusively made up of practising teachers and tutors, rather than consultants (a minimum of 98% of MathsConf delegates are current practitioners).  I wanted to create an event free from ideology or government diktat, where real classroom teachers could take centre stage and discuss the important moments and ideas in their current practice, where the best thinkers and educators could bring an external expertise to the mix but are forced to interact with real teachers rather than just their research peers, and where every single thing that is said is up for debate.  It is important to me that speeches and sessions are allowed from a wide range of perspectives – many of the workshops and talks I have put on the MathsConf programme have been in direct contradiction to what I believe; I love this – hearing opposing views forces one to truly engage in the debate, to read and research further, to question one’s own beliefs and to take on new thinking.

MathsConf is always a melting pot of ideas and arguments.  Our audience is intelligent and discerning – there is no need to do unto them; teachers are super bright!

Our latest event was yet another day of insight and thought provoking workshops.  It was a pleasure to be able to welcome 400 maths teachers to Kettering (my favourite MathsConf venue, incidentally) and to be steeped in such energy and vision for the day.

I have loved watching MathsConf fill that place in the mathematics education landscape that was missing for me when I was a teacher.  I have seen delegates come along to a MathsConf as a nervous trainee or NQT who have then gone on to develop their thinking and become a presenter at a MathsConf event.  I have enjoyed hearing the stories from delegates who have become close friends and now have people they can call on when things are tough at work or they just want someone to discuss ideas with.  I have loved the sense of community that has been forged with the help of MathsConf regulars and their ever-friendly manner with new delegates, helping them feel welcome and engaging with them in breakout sessions like the MathsConf TweetUp.

I strikes me as odd that, at every single MathsConf, people will come up to me at the end of the day and comment with surprise that everything ran to schedule.  How odd that teachers have become so used to amateur and unprofessional event organisation that they find it remarkable.  I wanted our events to pay due respect to those who attended by running like clockwork and making sure all who came were able to get the most from the day.

I believed there was a place for a different type of event in the calendar for maths teachers and am terribly grateful that thousands of teachers have agreed with me over the last three years attending MathsConfs across the country.  We always start MathsConf with an arranged meet up in a local pub the night before.  In Kettering on Friday night, 50 or so maths teachers gathered to chat, make new friends, do some maths and debate mathematics education.  This is what professionals do – we extend our interest in our work beyond the working day and workplace.

Yesterday, as always, the MathsConf line up was dominated by real teachers, talking about real classroom practice, real issues and the real feelings they have day-to-day.  Supporting this line up, a select group of speakers from outside the classroom who are spending time doing some great research and thinking.  At MathsConf, a minimum of 85% of the workshop leaders / speakers are current practitioners – I think this gives us the right balance between propositional knowledge, case knowledge and strategic knowledge – and what a difference that balance makes when compared to many of the events that exist for maths teachers, where only those deemed worthy to speak by some ideologue or government initiative are put on stage to lecture real teachers who actually do the job.  At MathsConf, we have an input from external expertise wrapped in a wealth of real classroom experiences.

The MathsConf audience is vibrant, enthusiastic, a whole load of fun and extremely friendly.  They are also big thinkers, questioning their practice continually.  They are, in short, the professionals this profession needs.  It is my honour to be able to work with you all and I hope to be able to continue to play a part in helping you to help pupils across the UK.

My sincere thanks to all who attend MathsConfs, you are a credit to the word “Teacher”.

Friday, 19 January 2018

Some Thoughts on Mixed Ability vs Setting

In the last week alone, I have heard an Ofsted inspector call for maths teachers to move to mixed ability teaching and an apparent ‘official’ government body insist that all pupils within a year group should always be learning the same mathematical concepts.

This has been pretty much a weekly occurrence now for the last year or so.

The explanation must be, of course, the striking new evidence that mixed ability teaching in mathematics is more impactful than teaching maths classes in sets, where learning content is targeted at the point in the journey through mathematics that each set has reached, right? There could be no other logical or defensible reason for such influential bodies to call on schools across the country to undertake such a huge change in their pedagogy, curriculum planning, teaching methods, staffing, timetabling, resourcing or fundamental beliefs, right?

This new evidence, which puts the nail in the coffin of the old setting vs mixed ability debate, must be so overwhelming, so robust and trialed that we should all fall in line with the calls from these official bodies, right?

The trouble is, there is no new evidence. Nothing at all. Nothing to suggest an urgent and state mandated response to hurry schools up and down the land to swap to mixed ability teaching. Zero.

Well, that’s kind of odd. Why would Ofsted and a Maths Hub be calling for this approach if there is no evidence to support such a call?

Mixed Ability or Setting

The discussion around how to group children when learning mathematics is as old as maths teaching itself. We should ask which is more impactful. Numerous studies and meta-studies have looked at the question and there is a wealth of published research on the issue. What does it find? Well, broadly, that there is little difference in outcome. Some studies suggest a slight improvement for low ability kids in mixed ability groups, some suggest high ability kids achieving worse results. Some suggest high ability kids doing better in setting, with low ability kids doing worse. Some highlight common practice of ‘teaching to the middle’ in mixed ability classes. Some studies show no impact at all. It is fair to say the broad picture of evidence in the debate is really rather fuzzy and the evidence certainly weak.

The main weaknesses in the data come from the tendency of studies in this area to conflate very different issues. Most studies looking at ability grouping, combine the practice of setting with other, non-analogous, practices such as streaming and other groupings. Prima facie it is clear setting and streaming are in no way relatable for the purposes of a robust study. The second weakness is the common practice of carrying out these studies without considering the subject specific nature of pedagogy. Studies tend to look at pupils across many subject areas, rather than commenting on the differences within studies. Where studies have gone further, for example Ireson and Hallam (2001), which looked at mathematics separately, the results are often quite different (in this particular case, showing setting improves outcomes in mathematics slightly).

There are some interesting studies underway, including a particularly notable one funded by the EEF, which should bring some more clarity to the subject specific part of the debate (though perhaps, from reading the proposed methodology, not to the differentiation between setting and streaming, which would be a great shame and missed opportunity). This will make for interesting reading when the study reports back next year.

For the moment, though, the evidence remains pretty much as it has been for a couple of decades: mixed and unreliable.

So, why change?

From the moment of coming to power in 1997, the Labour government repeatedly published commentary stating that schools should set children by ability unless there were extraordinary circumstances to justify mixed ability teaching. So strong was the belief in the efficacy of setting, both in terms of attainment and social justice, that Labour asked Ofsted to penalise schools where mixed ability practices were deployed.

Labour published statements making clear their belief was that mixed ability teaching can work, but only in cases where the teachers delivering were exceptionally good at doing so. For over a decade, Labour maintained its view and made clear to schools its beliefs. It is no surprise, then, that the majority of maths lessons in England’s secondary schools occur in setted classes. As a result, most maths teachers have learned their craft in teaching maths in non-mixed ability classes. The workforce is set up to teach setted classes.

Given there is no new evidence to suggest a system shift towards mixed ability teaching, it is curious that the notion is gaining traction.

Throughout my entire career as a maths teacher, I taught classes in mixed ability and loved every minute of it. It was by pure luck that the first school I landed in as a trainee teacher was a Utopian, hippy kind of place. The maths department (by far the best maths department I have ever known) was staffed by huge intellects, all of whom were over the age of 50. Their combined knowledge on the teaching process was immense. All classes were truly mixed ability, which meant I had to learn how to deliver mathematics lessons with the lowest attaining and highest attaining, lowest ability and highest ability all in one room. It was a blast. The intellectual challenge was huge and I relished it. Every member of the maths team truly believed in mixed ability classes and had become masterful in their practices and pedagogies specific to mixed ability teaching to ensure they had high impact. Those are the pedagogies and practices I developed too and I remain thankful for that.

The Labour government’s claim that mixed ability is only impactful with very specific types of teachers resonates with me. I have watched so many teachers being forced to teach mixed ability classes, without having had suitable CPD and time to develop necessary practices, which has always resulted in extremely sub-optimal lessons. Often a complete waste of time for everyone involved. As a young teacher, this used to upset me greatly, wondering why the outcome was so bad. Of course, as one learns more about teaching, one comes to realise that shoe-horning a teacher into a pedagogy is always a disaster.

So, the evidence does not support a change to mixed ability across the system, the workforce is not suitably developed to do so and forcing the issue without heavyweight CPD risks significant damage. Yet, still the call to change. Why?

Well, if it’s not evidence, then perhaps it’s…

Social Justice

An oft wielded argument in support of mixed ability teaching is the education for social justice angle. I loved that my classes were not segregated, loved that my pupils had equality of opportunity, loved the social interactions and what, as a young teacher, I believed to be the removal of stigma. But the social justice argument just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Real social justice comes from becoming learn’d, from becoming autonomous and being able to lead a purposeful adult life. Yet, the evidence tells us that mixed ability practices don’t result in greater gains in terms of attainment. Well, okay, but what about those pupils who would be placed in bottom sets in a setted scenario, surely they feel more included and less stigmatised? Yes, some do. But, and here’s the rub, many don’t. Where mixed ability teaching is forced upon teachers who have not developed necessary practices, the tendency to ‘teach to the middle’ leaves the lowest attaining and lowest ability pupils adrift, alienated and, most importantly, unable to learn. This returns us to the Labour government argument of mixed ability teaching only being defensible with appropriately skilled teachers.

And what about the highest ability pupils? Clearly, ‘teaching to the middle’ fails them. But, I have seen many mixed ability classes where high ability pupils are stretched and challenged because the teacher has sufficient subject knowledge and developed pedagogies to enable them to take a mathematical concept further and deeper than the aspirations of the national curriculum. This is wonderful to watch. Sadly, this is not common practice for two reasons. Firstly, most teachers have been trained to teach in a setted situation, where it would appear on first look that the content can be constrained to a fairly narrow inspection (more on that fallacy later). Secondly, the subject knowledge of teachers is not always sufficient to understand how to stretch a concept. This latter point is driving some of the worst practice I have witnessed in England’s schools, which is also a result of official bodies erroneously spreading the myth that all pupils should learn the same content, namely the practice of keeping high ability pupils on mundane work for months on end. An increasing number of teachers and parents are telling me about their frustration at this practice, with many going further to say that officials have told them they are ‘not allowed’ to let the pupils progress further up the curriculum no matter how secure they are in the concepts they are being kept on. We do, of course, want to give pupils as many opportunities as possible to behave mathematically, so once an idea has been gripped, it is desirable to give the pupil opportunities to explore the concept further and more deeply, making connections and solving problems. But there is a point where pupils should move on. The idea that all pupils should be kept on a concept arbitrarily is simply wrong.

So, the social justice argument doesn’t appear to be the driver either. After all, the Labour government was very committed to education for social justice too.

Ability or Attainment

The same inspector and same ‘official’ referred to at the start of this blog also included in their argument that the word ‘ability’ is damaging and should be replaced by the word ‘attainment’.

There is a slight problem with this argument: the words don’t mean the same thing!

Emotive language is used to try to advance this mind-numbing claim. Both people asserted that the word ‘ability’ is “dangerous”.

This attempt to redefine language is a common tactic when trying to create a deliberate dark ages and gain control for ideological reasons.

The greatest problem with the mixed ability vs setting debate is the fanatical tribalism of those at the extremes of both sides (of a debate that the evidence suggests there isn’t a fag paper between). Trying to discuss mixed ability or setting is often difficult because the debate is shut down by no-platformers, who will not accept any challenge to their beliefs, no matter how unsupported those beliefs are by evidence. Using words like “dangerous” is a way of shutting down debate. Who would want to be a “danger” to children?

Ability is not a dangerous word, it is a very helpful one. As is attainment. The difference between these words, in an education discussion, is really important and formative.

Attainment is the point that a pupil has reached in learning a discipline. It can change; pupils can unlearn as well as learn. It is not precise. But it is very useful in determining appropriate points on a curriculum from which to springboard pupils to new learning. We, as educators, continually assess these attainment points so as to best ensure the curriculum we are following can adapt and flex to what has been understood or forgotten. Knowing the prior attainment of pupils (rather than what has been previously presented at them) is crucial if we are to ensure pupils are learning appropriate new ideas and concepts.

Ability is an index of learning rate. It is the readiness and speed at which a pupil can grip a new idea. It can change; as with all human beings, pupils will make meaning from some metaphors, models or examples, more readily than they will of others. In maths, for example, we often see pupils quickly understanding some numerical pattern, say, who then take a long time to grip a geometrical relationship. An individual can have a high index of learning rate during some periods of their life and a low one at others. Again, as educators, we are continually assessing ability so that we are best able to judge the amount of time, additional practice, new explanations or support that a pupil needs in order to really grip an idea. Knowing the ability of a pupil (rather than wooly ideas of engagement or enjoyment) is crucial if we are to ensure that pupils are learning new ideas and concepts for the appropriate amount of time (rather than some arbitrary amount of time presented on a scheme of work).

Current attempts to abolish the word ‘ability’ from education’s lexicon are deliberate in trying to remove nuance from the debate. The fanatics do not like nuance!

For more on index of learning rate, see J B Carroll (1963) and B S Bloom (1969).

All classes are mixed attainment and mixed ability

One issue with the practice of setting pupils is the assumption that those setted classes are now homogenous. They are, of course, not. Setting is merely a way of narrowing the attainment range within a class, not removing it altogether. With a narrower attainment range, teachers may focus their attention on fewer aspects of a concept and spend a greater amount of time with a greater number of pupils on the crux of the matter. The class will still contain pupils who need to access the concept at a lower entry point and those who have already gripped the focus of the lesson and can be stretched further in their thinking. The teacher must still be aware of the prerequisites and the possible areas for extension. The narrowing of the attainment range is a mechanistic way of maximising teacher focus. The range of abilities in the class is also always present in setted classes. Pupils will grip ideas at different speeds through different metaphors and explanations. This is true of the highest attaining and of the lowest. A common misconception is that pupils in low sets have very similar index of learning rate. They don’t. There will still be pupils who grip ideas very quickly, because the ideas are being pitched at the right level for the pupils and the examples or models have resonated. Similarly, there will be very high attaining pupils in the top set who take a long time to grip an idea because the way in which it has been communicated has not allowed them to make connections to already known facts and ideas. The teacher must be aware of these attainment and ability ranges when working with pupils arranged in sets. The effective mixed ability teacher appears to be more alert to these differences, the ineffective mixed ability teacher ignores them and teaches to the middle. There are pros and cons in both approaches!

The impact of attainment range

Advocates of mixed ability teaching will often argue that the attainment gap does not matter – it can be any size. This is easy to dismantle reductio ad absurdum; would one advocate a class containing an individual who cannot count and another who is red hot at advanced Fourier Analysis? Of course not, so there is a range where the defence falls apart. The debate is really about how wide that gap can be and still maintain efficacy with a highly expert teacher. Those who refuse to engage with the nuance of the debate, choosing instead to maintain a fanatical stance of insisting the range can be of any size, serve only to weaken the argument for mixed ability teaching. I see many schools addressing the issue through logistical solutions such as having a top set and bottom set, but then six mixed ability classes between. This hybrid approach is a way of taking some account of the normal distribution nature of a year group. I would welcome research on these hybrid approaches so the impact can be better understood.

How big can the range be? This is really the question. We know that all classes are actually mixed attainment and ability, and that setting is simply a way of reducing the attainment spread to bring about efficiencies for teaching. The typical attainment range in mathematics at aged 11 in England is 7 years of learning. Every secondary teacher knows this; we all know 11 year olds who can do some pretty sophisticated mathematics and some who can’t yet count to 10 reliably. Should these pupils be in the same class? Should these pupils be forced to be in the same class with a teacher who does not subscribe to the approach and has not been trained to be impactful in such a setting? Is it possible to be impactful across all pupils when the attainment range is 7 years? These are the questions schools need to ask.

Mixed ability and Mastery

I have written extensively on mastery and trained more schools in mastery approaches than any other organisation in the UK, so I will not rehearse the arguments for mastery here. It is however, worth highlighting, yet again, that mastery has nothing whatsoever to do with mixed ability. Indeed, most mastery approaches throughout the last 100 years have embraced non-grade settings, where pupils are of mixed ages. This is to create classes that are as homogenous as possible (a key aspect of mastery efficacy).

So, really, why change?

The inspector mentioned in this blog was once a teacher. They did not teach mixed ability. Yet, they now are encouraging schools to undertake a root and branches review and a huge amount of work to move to an approach that will not change their outcomes. There must surely be a reason these people are saying these words, yet I have never heard anyone articulate a defensible argument for the upheaval. Do they actually know why they believe what they espouse? (note: the 'official' at the event added, "off the record, I don't think this is right")

My humble advice

The outcomes in both mixed ability and setting can be great. The outcomes in both can be awful. It is the practices, structures, logistics and pedagogies that bring about efficacy or not. But do not for one minute believe there is any requirement upon you and your school to change. There isn’t. The national curriculum is quite clear in its aspiration that the majority of pupils should learn the same content. Of course they should. The population of pupils is a normal distribution, so the majority around the mean are broadly similar in both attainment and ability. But majority simply means any number larger than 50%. Not all. There are many, many pupils who should be learning different materials, either because they are not yet equipped to learn the material of the majority or have far surpassed the majority.

I really loved teaching mixed classes. But I have a pedagogy and you have a pedagogy and they are not the same and they do not have to be the same. If you, as a whole maths department, want to teach your classes in sets, do. If you, as a whole maths department, want to teach your classes in mixed ability groups, do.

Just don’t do either because you are blindly following the blind.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Thought Provoking Mathematics Educators

I have been in this game a while now.  I have the great privilege of working with mathematics educators around the world and visiting schools of all types.  Invariably, whenever I meet a maths teacher or teacher educator, I learn something new about mathematics teaching.  I love this.  I am a bit of a knowledge junkie – I am absolutely addicted to learning.  I also love having my views, opinions and thoughts challenged, so that I must consider why I believe something to be true and either change my views based on new information or defend my views because they are well founded and right.  I love debate, love having my perspective shaken.  I read everything.  As a long-term sufferer of awful insomnia, I spend most of my nights, lying next to my snoring better half, reading, reading and reading.

I thought it might be a useful thing to capture here (I will continue to expand the list) a few of the people in mathematics education who leave me in awe at their knowledge and intellect.  These are the people who, without fail, always offer new insight and make me really think.  These are the people who have blown me away at various times and helped to keep me addicted to learning more.

Please note, this blog is not intended as some kind of league table of maths educators, it is not a list of the top maths teachers nor is it meant as giving out gongs.  It's just a personal list of the people who have made me think.  I'm sure you'll have your own list; why not add some reflections to the comments section of the people who have made you think?

So.. in no particular order, here are some of my inspirations...

Margaret Brown.  A huge intellect, Margaret has a knowledge of mathematics education systems and implementation matched by few.  Her insight into how to make mathematics teaching impactful is equally as impressive.  All communicated with a friendliness and warmth.  Working with people like Hilary Shuard and Anita Straker, Margaret defended and massively advanced effective systems of mathematics teaching in the late 1980s and early 1990s at a time when Ken Clarke appeared to be on the full offensive against sense.  Margaret’s research and writings are of huge importance in the canon of our profession and always add to one’s thinking.

John Mason.  I know of few people with John’s capacity to be simultaneously awe-inspiringly intellectual and graciously humble.  A terrifically nice person, with a depth of knowledge about how to communicate mathematical ideas.  I always enjoy speaking with John, but I recall a particular meeting 10 years or so ago in our Soho offices, when we were beginning to create a thing called the Mathemapaedia.  The table was surrounded by maths education heavyweights debating mathematical concepts and related pedagogies.  The knowledge in the room was incredible.  John waited patiently for a natural pause in the debate and added just a few words, which instantly made us all reflect and delve deeper.  This is John’s greatest skill – to make one consider one’s own thinking and actions further and deeper.

Pete Griffin.  A gentle, thoughtful and thought-provoking intellectual.  Pete not only knows a vast amount about mathematics teaching, he also has a deep understanding of how to educate mathematics teachers.  A conversation I had with Pete around a decade ago, in which he described the layers of learning about mathematics education, had a profound effect on me and took my knowledge of teacher education to a whole other level.

Richard Perring.  Richard pretends (or perhaps genuinely believes) that he is not on the same level as some of the big thinkers in maths education.  This is simply not true.  I have spent many a day with Richard talking about how to communicate new mathematical ideas to children.  His genius in being able to visualise and bring to life new ways of enabling children to learn is second to none.

Anne Watson.  A towering intellect, Anne has been responsible for adding huge amounts of new knowledge to the canon of maths teaching.  Often working with her partner, John Mason, Anne’s work is continually surprising and challenging.  Her depth of thought is remarkable and her commitment to maths specific pedagogies and practices make one stop to think carefully (for example, her reminder of the errors in popularised versions of Variation Theory, which made me reconsider the entire theory and discover far more impactful applications to the subject of mathematics teaching).

Hugh Burkhardt.  Hugh was a longtime collaborator of the late, great Malcolm Swan.  My first experience of working with them, some decades ago now, involved testing learning activities developed by Hugh in the classroom and providing feedback about what happened in the pupils’ minds.  Hugh’s approach to learning design is unequaled by anyone in maths education – each ‘lesson’ taking vast amounts of time and R&D.  Together with Malcolm and others, Hugh was responsible for the greatest work in the history of maths education, The Shell Centre.

Bernie Westacott.  And finally, a special note for the maths educator who has had the greatest impact on me of late.  I guess because those of us interested in maths education research and evidence all read the same books and attend the same talks, it is rare for me to sit in a workshop at an event and be blown away by novel, intelligent thinking.  Without fail, every time I hear Bernie speak, this is what happens.  He has an incredible insight in to early learning in mathematics and has extended and developed ways of communicating mathematics ideas that blow my mind.

If you are involved in mathematics education, whether just starting out or long in the tooth, I would encourage you to speak to, read and learn from the people listed above.  Continuing to challenge your own understanding of what makes for effective mathematics teaching won't just make your teaching better, it's also jolly good fun!