Recently, we have been talking to maths teacher Frankie Pimentel about her MA work based in KS3 maths, and in particular the changes in students’ attitudes about their maths learning as they move from KS2 to KS3. Frankie’s findings so far are, of course, pertinent for the maths classroom but also step into the broader realm of teaching and learning at KS3 as a whole.
Frankie’s early interest in this area was prompted by her realisation that there was growing disaffection with maths among her Year 7 cohort. As Frankie explained, her Year 7 classes just did not seem to enjoy their lessons. This dissatisfaction was made even more stark for Frankie after spending some time in primary schools and witnessing the pleasure with which the KS2 students engaged with their maths learning at this level. To dig a bit deeper into this contrast, Frankie asked her Year 7 students to complete a questionnaire about their maths lessons, the aim of which was to identify the reasons why the students did not transfer their enjoyment of maths from primary school to secondary school, and what maths teachers can do to change this negative trajectory.
The results of the questionnaire were revealing. Firstly, it was clear that students felt unmotivated in maths at KS3, and that they recognised this as a change in attitude from their primary school experience. Furthermore, the questionnaire went some way in uncovering the causes of the decline. Contrary to the popular myth that maths is a tricky subject for many students and thus they disengage because of the difficulty, it became apparent that the students were repeating material they had already learnt and embedded at KS2 and so in fact were not being challenged enough. Frankie’s time spent in primary school corroborated this finding. After a thorough investigation of the KS2 curriculum, Frankie could see that by the time students got to her in Year 7 they already had in place some understanding of many of the more complex mathematical concepts, for example algebra, that she had assumed were brand new. This in turn raised Frankie’s awareness of the assumptions that are frequently made in KS3 classrooms regarding students’ starting points. Teachers often believe that KS3 students, in particular Year 7, have no or very limited knowledge of the KS3 curriculum, when in fact they often have a very firm foundation from which they can progress. Indeed, this misconception is not only found in the maths classroom, but spans across multiple subjects.
Accordingly, Frankie has changed her teaching practice. Expectations of what students can achieve in Year 7 maths lessons are much higher, and Frankie and her team are more meticulous in identifying the students’ starting points in Year 7, and use their increased knowledge of the KS2 curriculum to inform this process. Additionally, the maths team are making use of the new mathematics specifications at GCSE to ensure less repetition of learning that is already embedded for students, thus meaning that they can move on to more complex material when appropriate. This greater depth of accuracy and awareness of previous learning means that the challenge is higher in all teaching groups, regardless of starting points.
Frankie’s next step in her MA studies will include a second questionnaire for Year 7 students to help explore how these curriculum changes have affected their attitude towards maths lessons. So far, the anecdotal impact of these changes include the observation that more students are willing to have a go at tackling questions and are less fearful of making mistakes. Perhaps more importantly, Frankie has noticed that the students’ motivation has increased as they encounter genuine success with their learning.
Questions and Practical Suggestions:
- Look Backwards and Forwards: Many teachers refer to the curriculum in higher key stages to help ensure lessons are challenging, but it is just as crucial to purposefully increase your knowledge of the key stage curriculum below. For example, if you teach KS3 then develop your knowledge of the curriculum demands made on students at KS2 and KS4. This will enable you to have a much more precise understanding of where your students have come from, and how to develop the knowledge they have already acquired.
- Make Students Aware of What You Know: Mention to the classes what you know about the curriculum from the lower key stage. Get students to recall this knowledge and make explicit links in your explanations of new content.
- Show Students Where They Are Going: Frankie recommends showing classes, including year 7, a GCSE level question (or question from the next key stage) at the beginning of the lesson so that students can see what they will be able to do at the end. This centralises the expectation of challenge as the heart of the lesson.