Category Archives: Policy

Blogs about policy, predominantly education.

A Curriculum That Works

This is the second of three posts reflecting on my first term as Curriculum Lead for Maths. The last post, on our new post-levels assessment system, can be found here.

A New Key Stage 3 Curriculum

The curriculum is so much more than a statement of what is to be taught and when. It embodies a school’s vision for its students and its philosophy of learning. I can look at a school’s mathematics curriculum and tell you all about the person who wrote it – their expectations of students, their hopes for their futures, their beliefs about how to get there. The curriculum is the embodiment of all these things, and it is crucial to get it right.

To begin writing a curriculum you must begin from a vision of the mathematicians you want your students to become. Mine is that I want our students to become “knowledgeable problem-solvers who relish the challenge Mathematics offers”. They should, at the end of their time with us, be able to independently tackle an unfamiliar mathematical problem and create a meaningful solution to it.

I am mindful when considering this vision, of the roaring debate around discovery and project-based learning, and how it can fall foul of WIllingham’s novice-expert distinction. My view is this:

Knowing that students begin novices, the purpose of education is to make them into experts.

The curriculum needs to train students. We cannot assume expert qualities of them from the start, and plunge them into investigations where most or many students will fail to learn. Similarly, we cannot dogmatically write off any activity involving discovery, investigation or project work. I emphatically want my students to be capable of expert investigation when they leave school, and so our curriculum must explicitly prepare them for that. The last part of this post in particular looks at how we manage this in a practical way.

From the vision of how students should leave school, I drew up three design principles:

1) The curriculum must develop fluency.
2) The curriculum must develop conceptual understanding.
3) The curriculum must teach students to solve problems.

Principle 1: Developing Fluency

When I wrote the last iteration of our school’s KS3 Maths curriculum, I abandoned the traditional spiral structure and opted for a depth before breadth approach. We probably halved the amount of content covered in a year, as we wanted to give students the time they needed to develop fluency. This year we’ve cut it again. Each of the six terms covers a maximum of three ‘topics’, most of which are closely linked. Terms in Year 7, for example, look like this:

  1. Mental addition and subtraction; Decimal addition and subtraction; Rounding
  2. Mental multiplication and division; Decimal multiplication and addition; Factors and multiples
  3. Understanding fractions; Operations with fractions
  4. Generalising with algebra (expressions and functions only)
  5. Properties of 2D shapes; Angle rules
  6. Equivalence between fractions, decimals and percentages

Smaller concepts that tie closely with big ones above are taught alongside them. For example, perimeter is taught in Term 1 alongside addition, area and the mean average are both taught in Term 2 alongside multiplication and division.

Since we give so much time to teaching each mathematical skill, we expect a high degree of fluency. To take the National Curriculum’s definition, fluency is students’ ability to “recall and apply their knowledge rapidly and accurately to problems“. It means not just being able to do something, but being able to reliably do it well and quickly. I would add that a necessary condition for fluency in a skill or operation is that it is embedded in your long-term memory.

This is exceptionally valuable in mathematics. A student may learn to be able to multiply decimals, but not become fluent in it. When multiplying decimals they have to slow down, to stop and think, and may make mistakes. This means that in Term 4 when they are learning to substitute into formulae with decimal numbers, they will face two severe problems. Firstly, their working memory will be occupied thinking about multiplying decimal numbers together, and not about substituting into formulae. Secondly, their reduced pace will mean that they have less exposure to substituting into formulae in each lesson. Overall they will spend less time thinking about the new concept they are supposed to be learning, and will learn it less well as a consequence (after all, “memory is the residue of thought”).

Developing fluency then, means lots of practice time with well thought out problems. Practice has got a bad reputation in mathematics, with too many people having been turned off maths by pages of repetitive textbook questions. My response is that practice need not mean making maths dry or uninspiring. Our students appreciate the value of practice as something that gives them the skills to do fun maths, and to achieve things they are proud of. Practice is invaluable, but can be dangerous if not used alongside meaningful and motivating problems.

If fluency is about rapid and accurate recall of knowledge, then Kris Boulton will tell you that fluency depends on high storage strength and high retrieval strength. A depth-focused curriculum gives us storage strength, but could easily sabotage retrieval strength if knowledge is not revisited. This is probably our biggest area to work on. The curriculum includes notes about what content to revisit when (thanks Kris!) and our assessments presume previous content as mastered prior knowledge. However we haven’t yet found a more structured way of revisiting content consistently across classes.

Principle 2: Conceptual Understanding

It is not enough for a curriculum to say what to teach. A meaningful curriculum also says how to teach it. At WA we’re big believers in the Singaporean approach of concrete-pictorial-abstract (CPA), and use this to structure our teaching. One of the reasons mathematical understanding in Britain is historically so poor is because students have been immediately confronted with abstract representations, representations that are well separated from any concrete reality, and not been given enough support in understanding them. 

A favourite example of mine is ratio. I meet strikingly few students who can answer a question of the following type correctly:

“Bill and Ben share sunflower seeds in the ratio 3:2. If Ben has 20 sunflower seeds, how many does Bill have?”

I’d love to do some research and rely on less anecdotal evidence, but I’d guess that more British 16 year olds would say 12 than would say the correct answer of 30. Why? Because they were taught ratio in a completely abstract way, where they learned to apply a method but didn’t every receive the support needed to understand the concept of ratio.

In our curriculum, however, the pictorial bar model is central to teaching ratio. In fact I don’t teach my students an abstract method (they’re perfectly capable of coming up with it for themselves by doing the bars mentally and writing down calculations). For the unfamiliar, a bar model to represent the above problem would look like this:



Students draw the ratio, label what they know, work out the size of each block and then the size of Bill’s bar. I am yet to find a student who doesn’t understand this method, and who can’t do considerably harder problems using it. This is the benefit of having a pictorial representation to help students understand the concept they are learning, and to soften the jump into pure abstract. Every topic in our curriculum comes with CPA guidance to develop strong conceptual understanding in all students.

Also key to developing conceptual understanding are links between areas of mathematics. I am eternally frustrated by how students see maths as broken down into small discrete chunks that have little or no relationship with one another. Even when we have topics that are just different representations of identical concepts (sequences and linear graphs, for example), few British students will ever see them as linked. At the core of our curriculum then is a sequence carefully designed to make every concept learned useful to a later one. More than this, it guides teachers to make links, and uses assessment to make sure students are comfortable making these.

Principle 3: Problem-solving

Mathematics is essentially the study of problem-solving. The process of mathematical abstraction has been followed for millennia because it is so useful for generalising and solving what the National Curriculum calls “some of history’s most intriguing problems”. If our students are to become the experts we want them to be when they leave, we need to train them in problem-solving now.

For me, problem-solving is a skill to be taught, and it should be taught like any other. Adept problem-solvers have not come to be so through innate talent, but because they have seen the solutions to many problems before and are able to spot similarities and apply familiar techniques. Our curriculum aims to teach students the most powerful problem-solving techniques by exposing them to a carefully selected sequence of problems, some of which are taught and some of which are independently worked on.

Each term has a problem-solving focus. For example, Term 1 was “Working systematically”. Students began with a problem where they had to work out how many different possible orders there were for a two course and then a three course set menu at a restaurant. They began using ordered lists to write out combinations, before speculating on general rules and checking them on new possibilities. Through a range of different problems in the term students learned (a) how to work systematically in different contexts, and (b) the value of doing so. 

Conclusion

Our curriculum has definitely met the three design principles set out, and is working well for our students. Depth before breadth has given them time to become fluent, to develop conceptual understanding and to solve problems. They see the value in mathematics as they’re exposed to interesting and meaningful problems. However this is done in a deliberate and structured way to make sure they are learning throughout. By applying the concrete-pictorial-abstract principle throughout we make sure that all students can interact with the concepts they’re learning and develop their understanding to a deeper level.

For me, we have two key things to work on after Christmas. Firstly, the revisiting of prior knowledge. We need to keep retrieval strength high, and must find a more structured way of doing this. Secondly, developing the guidance we give for teaching, particularly around drawing links between areas of maths. Although this happens well it is not yet a big enough part of our formal curriculum documents, which risks it slipping away in future.

An Assessment System That Works

I’ve been fairly absent from blogging/Twitter since the summer – an inevitable consequence of taking up a few new roles amidst the discord of new systems and specifications emerging from gov.uk with increasing regularity. But I don’t mean that as a complaint. Much that was there was broken, and much that is replacing it is good. Although life in the present discord is manic and stressful, it is also a time of incredible opportunity to improve on what went before, and to rework many of the systems in teaching that went unquestioned in schools for too long.

This Christmas I’m stopping to reflect on the term gone by, and on our efforts to improve three areas: Assessment, Curriculum, and Teaching & Learning. There are many failures, many ideas that failed to translate from paper to practice, but also a good number of successes to learn from and develop in January.

A Blank Slate

KS3 SATs died years ago. National Curriculum levels officially die in September, but can be ‘disapplied’ this year. With tests and benchmarks gone, there is a blank slate in KS3 assessment. This is phenomenally exciting. Levels saturated schools with problems – they were a set of ‘best fit’ labels, good only for summative assessment, that got put at the heart of systems for formative assessment. No wonder they failed.

At WA we decided to try building a replacement system, trialled in Maths, that could ultimately achieve what termly reporting of NC levels never could. We began with three core design principles:

1) It has to guide teaching and learning (it must answer the question “what should I do tonight to get better at Maths?”).
2) It has to be simple for everyone to understand.
3) It has to prepare students for the rigour of tougher terminal exams and challenging post-16 routes.

Principle 2 led us to an early decision – we wanted a score out of 100. This would be easy for everyone to understand, and by scoring out of 100 rather than a small number we are less likely to have critical thresholds where students’ scores are bunched and where disproportionate effort is concentrated. Scoring out of 100, we felt, would always encourage a bit more effort on the margin in a way that GCSE with eight grades fail to do.

Principle 1 led us to another early decision – we need data on each topic students learn. Without this, the system will descend into level-like ‘best fit’ mayhem, where students receive labels that don’t help them to progress. Yet there’s a tension here between principles 1 and 2. Principle 1 would have data on everything, separated at an incredibly granular level. However this would soon become tricky to understand and would ultimately render the system unused.

For me, Principle 3 ruled out using old SATs papers and past assessment material. These were tied to an old curriculum that did no adequately assess many of the skills we expect of our students. They also left too much of assessment to infrequent high-stakes testing, which does not encourage the work ethic and culture of study we value.

These three principles guided our discussions to the system we have now been running since September.

Our System

The Maths curriculum in Year 7-9 (featured in the next post) has been broken down into topics – approximately 15 per year. Each of these topics is individually assessed and given a score out of 100. This score is computed from three elements: an in-class quiz, homework results, and an end of term test. Students then get an overall percentage score, averaged from all of the topics they have studied so far. This means that for each student we have an indication of their overall proficiency at Maths, as well as detailed information on their proficiency at each individual topic. This is recorded by students, stored by teachers, and reported to parents six times a year.

Does it work?

Principle 1: Does it guide teaching and learning?

Lots of strategies have been put in place to make sure that it does. For example, the in-class quiz is designed to be taken after the material in a topic has been covered but before teaching time is over. The results are used to guide reteaching in the following lessons so that the students can retake with another quiz on that topic and increase their score. Teachers also produce termly action plans as a result of their data analysis, which highlight the actions needed to support particular students as well as adjustments needed to combat problematic whole class trends.

Despite this, we haven’t yet developed a culture of assessment scores driving independent study. Our vision is that students know exactly what they have to do each evening to improve at Maths, and I believe that this system will be integral to achieving that. We need a bigger drive to actively develop that culture, rather than expecting it to come organically.

Extract from the Year 7 assessment record sheet.

I’m also concerned that assessment at this level has not yet become seen as a core part of teaching and learning. Teachers are dedicated in their collection and recording of data, and have planned some brilliant strategies for extending their students’ progress. But it still just feels like an add-on, something additional to teaching rather than at the heart of it. One of our goals as a department next term must be to embed assessment data further into teaching; not to be content with it assisting from the side.

Principle 2: Is it easy to understand?

Unequivocally yes. Feedback from parents, tutors and students has been resoundingly positive. Each term we report each student’s overall score, as well as their result for each topic studied that term. One question for the future is how to make all past data accessible to parents, as by Year 9 there will be 40+ topics worth of information recorded.

Principle 3: Is it rigorous enough?

By making the decision to produce our own assessments from scratch we allowed ourselves to set the level of rigour. I like to think that if anything we’ve set it too high. We source and write demanding questions to really challenge students, and to prepare them to succeed in the toughest of exams. A particular favourite question of mine was asking Year 8 to find the Lowest Common Multiple of pqr and pq^2, closely rivalled by giving them the famed Reblochon cheese question from a recent GCSE paper.

The Reblochon cheese question – a Year 8 favourite.


Following the advice of Paul Bambrick-Santoyo (if you haven’t read Leverage Leadership then go to a bookshop now) we made all assessments available when teachers began planning to teach each topic. This has been a great success, and I’ve really seen the Pygmalion effect in action. By transparently raising the bar in our assessments, teachers have raised it in their lessons; and students have relished the challenge.

Verdict

This assessment system works. It clearly tells students, teachers and parents where each individual is doing well and where they need to improve. Nothing is obscured by a ‘best fit’ label, yet the data is still easy to understand. Freeing ourselves from National Curriculum levels freed us from stale SATs papers and their lack of ambition. Instead we set assessments that challenge students at a higher level – a challenge they have met. The next step is making data and assessment a core part of teaching. Just like NC levels were once a part of every lesson (in an unhelpful labelling way), the results of assessment should be central to planning and delivering each lesson now.

The Practice Gap: Quantity

At its core, the achievement gap is just a practice gap. Children from a more advantaged socio-economic backgrounds have a greater quantity of academic practice, and its effect is compounded by the higher quality of this practice.
We know that, on average, children from wealthier backgrounds spend longer engaged in academic pursuits than their less wealthy peers. We also know that the growth of knowledge is exponential. Once a gap has emerged it will grow, even if experiences after that point are identical. This means that even a small practice gap will grow into a big achievement gap.
The first step to closing the practice gap is to close the gap in quantity of practice. This blog is about the role of lessons in closing that gap. Its aim is to provide general principles that increase the quantity of practice time within a lesson. 
1) Every second counts
The cumulative effect of wasted minutes is tremendously destructive. Consider a student who arrives two minutes late to the start of each lesson. They take two minutes to begin working, and manage to waste another two minutes ‘packing away’ at the end. Ignoring any other down time during a lesson, this student would lose the equivalent of 19 school days each year – practically a term’s worth of learning. Every second counts.
The classroom that closes the practice gap eliminates lost minutes. It considers as late a student who is late to begin working, because being on time is about more than arriving at the classroom door. Transitions are tight, and every logistical operation is rehearsed to military efficiency. Teacher instructions are precise and concise, with non-verbal cues being used wherever possible. Accepting wasted seconds is accepting a practice gap.
2) Scarcity motivates
Give a student an hour to complete a task, and you can be damn well sure they’ll take an hour. They’ll crawl along with heroic inefficiency, working with the enthusiasm of a sloth on sedatives. Give the same student the same task with a finite, even daringly short time limit, and they’ll swing into action. A student’s mood should not determine the pace of their work. You should.
Every task given without a time limit is giving a blank cheque from the account of your most precious resource. The scarcity of limited time forces students to work efficiently and push themselves to achieve before their opportunity has passed. I like to generate scarcity by having a timer on display throughout my lessons, constantly counting down the seconds until the task must be completed. I also find that round numbers of time have far less effect than unusually specific ones. Five minutes is shorthand for “a little while”. Six minutes is a reasoned and deliberate limit. The teacher who’s calculated a specific maximum time is the teacher who won’t waste a second.
3) Speed matters
It is not good enough to just be able to perform a task. Students have to be able to perform it quickly, and without occupying too much of their working memory. Barry Smith taught me to call this “overlearning”, and it has changed the way I teach. A student has learned a skill or fact well enough when performing or recalling it exerts sufficiently small demands on their working memory that they are able to study something else at the same time. Otherwise, why bother? Students will never be able to operate in an unknown situation, or draw links across topics and subjects. They have to be able to do the thing you’ve been teaching them, and learn something new.
A great measure for this is speed. Directly measuring whether an operation has entered a student’s ‘muscle memory’, or its cognitive equivalent, is a tough problem. Monitoring their speed can be an effective proxy. Better still, speed is easily measured by students and can give them a tangible number with which to prove the progress they make. This motivating effect spurs them on to practise more and achieve even lower times.
That said, speed should be used with caution. It is not appropriate for all skills, and is a poor measure for non-routine or creative tasks. It is also risky because speed is easily ranked, and can turn practice into a competition against each other rather than against the clock. When well managed, however, speed is an excellent way of increasing the quantity of practice for routine skills that need embedding in long term memory.
4) Target mastery
It doesn’t matter what students have done, it matters what they’ll be able to do next. Students are too used to seeing a task as the end in itself. They complete 20 questions for homework because their homework is 20 questions. The practice required is limited and invariant. The job is done when the questions are done. 
Learning needs to shift from the past into the future tense. The goal of learning is to be able to face a future challenge, not to have completed a past one. By changing the objective of your class to focus on what students have to master, their quantity of practice will increase. Their motivation changes, so they are thinking about the skills they have mastered rather than whether they have hit their quota of questions. They are more likely to enter a state of flow, and to practise for the right amount of time. Tweaking your classroom to expect and reward mastery rather than task completion can revolutionize your students’ attitudes and significantly increase the quantity of their practice.
Conclusion
The gap in quantity of practice is a big one. It starts early – there is a 22% gap between 3 year olds who watch more than 3 hours of TV a day. It is fed into by a wide range of influences, many beyond the class teacher’s control. But by placing these philosophies at the heart of your classroom, you can make a significant impact in closing the practice gap for your students.

The Practice Gap

“If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.”
Sun Tzu, The Art of War
The persistence of the achievement gap is in part down to its mysterious nature. Teachers, new and old, battle their way through classrooms trying to defeat this enemy, doing everything they can to close the gap. But do we really know what we’re fighting? We can all give reasons why the achievement gap exists – hearing more words when growing up, fewer adverse experiences, more opportunities, greater intellectual stimulation from parents, better surroundings for working, etc, etc, etc. Lists like these give us a sense of the scale and variety of the problem. However they do little to help us solve it. They’re too big, full of too many vaguely related things, and far too complex for an individual teacher to use to build a strategy.

It’s time for a bit of synthesis. We need to boil the problem down into one simple idea; one that is straightforward enough to apply in every classroom, yet powerful enough to close a tremendously persistent gap.

I would argue that the achievement gap is little more than a practice gap.

In recent years our understanding of what it takes to be successful has come a long way, and numerous pieces of research* point to one single defining cause of success – deliberate practice. We know that natural talent, whatever that may be, is a fairly insignificant factor in success. What matters more is the volume and quality of practice in a field. From Tiger Woods to Mozart, the world’s most prodigious talents are actually the world’s most committed practicers.

All of the influences listed at the start of this post, the influences often blamed for the achievement gap, are in some way influences on practice. They shape either its quantity or its quality. Rather than trying to tackle each of these separately and being overwhelmed by the scale of the problem, teachers should be empowered by seeing the problem for what it is – a practice gap. Children from lower socio-economic backgrounds get worse academic results than their wealthier peers because they have less deliberate practice.

Defining the problem in these terms gives teachers a new challenge:

How do I maximize the quantity and quality of practice my students get in my subject?

Doing so has three major advantages:

A clear problem is easier to solve.Looking separately at all of the different aspects of a problem is confusing and overwhelming. Looking straight to its heart is empowering. Teachers closing an achievement gap have to undo a host of past problems and effects. Teachers closing a practice gap have to maximize deliberate practice.

Two criteria to judge solutions. Every idea, new or old, is judged by asking two questions. How much does this increase the quantity of practice? How much does this increase the quality of practice? If there’s not a resoundingly positive answer to one of these questions, it’s not closing the gap.

It unites teachers around a common problem. When the problem is unclear teachers all see it differently, and use different criteria to judge solutions. Sharing a common understanding of the problem makes conversation more productive, improves the quality of ideas, and aligns teachers towards one specific aim.

I’m going to write two follow-up posts about the practice gap – one on quantity and one on quality. The aim is to provoke some thought about priorities for the classroom, and to guide myself into next year with some specific targets.

The nation is faced with a huge gap. It is a gap into which millions have fallen, and will fall, unless we are able to close it. It is why the UK has some of the worst social mobility in the world, and why your parents wealth is such a powerful predictor of your educational success. It can be represented in many ways, and seen through many lenses, but at its heart, it is just a practice gap.

*Some great books in this genre include Practice Perfect by Doug Lemov, Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin, and Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. Dweck’s work on mindset is also pretty influential.