Pre-teaching, Wheel turning, and more. In this episode, Adam and Robin are joined again by Sana Malik to discuss how to manage a class of pupils with mixed attainment levels. How can a lesson cater to different learners? Does the structure Sana uses help? Plus, Sana speaks about the importance of getting class pairings right and how that impacts learning.
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Hi, I'm Robin Potter.
Hi, I'm Adam Gifford.
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Welcome back to another episode of the School of School podcast. We are so lucky we have one of our regular hosts, Adam Gifford. Hello Adam, how are you?
I'm really well, Robin. How are you?
Yeah, I'm good. Well, I'm sorry that Andy can't be here today. But guess what? We've got a fantastic guest on. She will more than makeup for Andy's absence. Today we have Sana Malik. Sana, welcome to the show. I am not going to give you any introduction because I'd like you to introduce yourself because there's so much about you that we'd love to know. Please tell us a little bit about you.
Yeah, I'm a year-five teacher. I work in St. Mary's Primary School in Moss Side in Manchester. I have been teaching for nine years now. I'm also the maths lead in the school.
Perfect. Well, thank you so much for being here. I am excited about this topic because I think you know quite a bit about it. We are going to talk about working with a class of children with mixed attainment and mixed abilities. I'm just curious, how can we set them up all for success? I think I'll let you start us off.
Yes. Brilliant. Yes, of course, because we follow the mastery approach to teaching. One of the key things is to have that belief that every child can achieve. It doesn't matter what their attainment levels are/where they're coming from. The main key belief and idea is that we know that every child is different. They have different abilities. They come from different backgrounds. They have different needs, different styles of learning. As a teacher, you're aware of all that. In a lesson, you just have to teach in such a way that you are giving them an opportunity and an environment, an experience that everybody can achieve and is achieving and making progress as well. Every time we have discussions and we ask teachers about the challenges, it's always about how do we help children with additional needs. Or if we have children who's got high attainment levels, how do we extend their learning or challenge them?
I believe that how we teach and the lesson structure that we use and how we follow it really helps every child to make progress in the lesson. I'll start with, for example, a child who's got additional leads. First of all, as a teacher, you need to really understand your children. You need to have a good relationship with them. You need to make sure that you know where they're coming from, what their needs are, any external/internal factors, emotional needs. Do they have any learning difficulties? Is it English as an additional language that's causing a problem? Which shouldn't really be a problem 'cause it's maths. That should not be the barrier. For all that, what we need to do is we need to make sure that they have the resources that's available in the lesson for them to use: the concrete resources, the pictures, visual images, and making sure that they understand the problem that they're solving. You read the problem to them. You translate the problem, if the barrier is the language.
I'm going to start with the child who's got additional needs in my class. Sometimes I pre-teach. Before the whole class looks at the problem, during morning work... because in our school we have morning work where we do a fluency task/play fluency games. That's the time, before this lesson has started, that children with additional needs can have some extra time to look at the problem with either a teacher or the TA so that they are ready to contribute. They understand what the problem is. Before the whole class looks at it, they've already had a chance, which gives them a chance to then do those discussions on the carpet/on the table, have some idea how they're going to approach it by asking those questions like, "Do you understand? What would you do? What do you need?" When they're actually doing it, they have somewhere to start from.
Then, of course, as the lesson goes, when they are with their peers, they already have started. They're at a different point. They can discuss more. They can do whatever they can. Now, you are giving them the experience. It doesn't matter which part of the learning they're on/which part of the cycle they're on as long as they are making some progress. That's the key thing. If they make the pictures... They use the concrete resources. They can contribute. They can explain whatever they have done. You've given them the experience. You are successful. They're successful.
But what we don't want is a child sitting there not understanding what's happening, no help there because they're sitting with mixed attainments. They see everybody in their teams, with their peers/partners. They can talk to each other. It's like collaborative approach. It really facilitate that process. It gives them a chance to look at different children talking, listen to their ideas. Then, whatever clicks to them, then they do those ideas and then try that out.
Throughout... of course, in the lesson, they will have teacher modelling it, structuring, looking at the textbooks, doing journaling. All that really helps them to make connections throughout the lesson. Now if you go to now those children who are... The question will be, "Okay, all that is definitely helping. But what about those children who are high attainers who understand the problem sometime?" Sitting down, looking at the problem, they know sometimes what the answer is. Training them to be like, "Okay, can you explain your method? Can you explain me how did you get to the answer?"
Now, I think my class... not now. It's been a long time. That they know that knowing the answer is not enough. It's how I explain it, using numbers, writing my method, explaining it. Can I justify how do you know it is the right answer? Did you try out something else to see? Have you made comparisons to anybody else? We have got different extension questions in school that we use, things like, "Can you explain to someone who does not understand it?" Coming back to a teacher's point of view: "You know it. How will explain to someone who doesn't have a clue what's going on? How will you make it accessible and easy for them to understand? Can you now, looking at this problem, make up your own problem, a creative way which can be solved using a similar approach?"
Now, you're getting the opportunity to make these problems which they can solve or get somebody else to solve. It's like, "Can you write a number story? Can you explain to somebody who doesn't understand who's not in today/who's absent today? Or can you think of a method that you think nobody has used in the class? How many different ways can you find out?" I don't like to use the word challenge. But there is something for everybody to do.
Can I just jump in and ask something? In amongst all of this, we can put these structural changes in. I just want to get your thoughts on this. I want to get your thoughts on what about a teacher's expectations in amongst all of this. What role does a teacher's expectations play? Because we can structure lessons exactly what you've said, but I just wonder in terms of teacher expectation of the children in their class, do you have any thoughts on what role that plays in terms of your class' success if you like?
Yep. Of course, teachers should have high expectation from all pupils. But your expectation of a child can be different to another child. You want all of them to have that experience. You want all of them to know that these are the extension questions for you all. It's not for just this group. It's for everyone. When you have finished a task/when you've explained it, can you have a go at doing any of that? It's not for just a group. It's for the whole class.
You have high expectation for everybody, but depending on their needs, depending on their attainment levels, depending on their additional requirements that they need in the lesson, your expectations from children is different in a way. For example, a child who's a high attainer, I'll be looking at... "Okay, you have done this one, but how have you extended that learning?" You don't want your child to be sitting down looking around. "I'm done and bored." It's certainly failing that child then.
What are you doing to engage that child? But there is another child who's just literally guessed a concept. "Okay, now I get it. That's my first step done." You know, as a teacher, that's massive progress for that child. You know what you're expecting from everyone. It's high expectations from everybody. But depending on the attainment levels and the gaps in learning, if somebody's come from a massive gap, then you've got to really give them the proper scaffolding that support/that help. Some children will need more of your help. Some will just need some prompting to... "Can you explain?" It's like every child's needs are different, and you just have to give that to them: the opportunities.
When you have a higher attainer, do you pair them sometimes with someone who's struggling a little bit more, as in you ask that child, "Okay, now you need to explain it to your partner"?
Do you find that's helpful?
...for both of them?
Definitely. You've got to very carefully make those groupings and partnership. You don't want a very high attainer to a child who's got very low attaining maybe 'cause he's come from a... I have a child in my class who's come from a different country and have got gaps of years. You've got to very carefully plan where one child can explain. Even an explanation is a very important learning for them. "You've done this one. Can you explain because your friend is struggling? How would you explain? Or can you help them to start this off at this point?" So, yes, definitely the explanation.
I definitely have noticed that if you go back years when I had my class/when we started this approach, I saw this a lot with my high attainers. They've got it. This explanation was not great. They could not explain. They could not explain what was going on. They did this calculation. "But what did you do? You made the 10. You made the hundreds. You took this away to do this calculation, and then you added it up. How can you show it to me? You're telling me, but can you explain that?"
It was a big step for them to use the number bonds. Those structures were very nicely explained in the textbooks, which then helped for them to... "Okay, I can show this for my mental maths." Those number bonds and making the connections, which are all in the textbooks... Again, textbooks can be seen as a journal. "This is somebody's thinking. Can you see that?" "Okay, that's what you were doing." "No, I wasn't doing that." "Of course, you were doing this because you told me. Have a look." That child has explained they're learning this way. You see them picking now. Loads of children use those models that we have seen in the textbooks. Certainly, they have definitely helped. The textbooks have helped. The models and the structuring have really helped them to articulate their ideas. There's a big push in our school about oracy anyway. We give them stem sentences, the vocabulary words, and get them to explain using mathematical vocabulary as well.
What's changed over nine years? I know the school. I know everyone works really hard. It's been a successful school for quite some time. I think it's indicative of the staff that work there and the community support that you have. I guess it can be broken into two parts: a personal change for you over nine years. There are very few people who come out of teacher training as already formed, super-duper, "this is as good as it gets in my teaching career". The second part is just generally. Have there been any changes in terms of... I don't know, attitudes, approaches, anything like that?
I do feel those classes who have an experience of years are better in explaining their methods. They are not afraid to make mistakes. They know that it's fine to explore and get it wrong. Go back over it. See what's happening. They don't take that much pressure, like, "I have to get the right answer." It's like, "Okay. I can make mistakes." That attitude definitely.
I've definitely seen them definitely explaining things better using that strategy, that, "I know my answer, but how can I explain?" If they want to write writing, fine. If they want to use numbers, okay. If they want to make pictures... Use of bond models definitely is one of the things that I've seen that, over years, have really improved and definitely helps with solving some of the word problems when it's three times more or four times more. Certain types of problems becomes easier for them to solve if they make a bond model to represent that problem.
Yes, I feel like because of the experience, they're definitely getting more confident in explaining their ideas and not afraid to make mistakes. "I'm very good with explaining." I just recently had a visit. I had a showcase lesson. They said, "We have never seen children so confident in just talking to each other and explaining and being so proud of what they've done." They take the ownership. "This is my work. This is my method. I've done this." Yeah, definitely improved in that, I'll say.
What about you, though? How's your teaching of children? You've got 30 different children in your classroom, or however many have got. What's changed for you? If you cast your mind back to a fresh brand new summer?
I feel like it's hard to go back and see what I could do. But I feel like I've been doing it for ages. But I know what you mean. If you're using this approach, of course, I think all the problems, all the models, the textbooks... We are lucky that we have a very well-resourced, very well-researched problems. It's all there. It gets teachers now to step back. You don't have to think about what problems can I give them. Now, you can think of how you're going to approach it/what questions you're going to ask. Where would you do a pause-and-reflect? Can everybody now look at this problem? Why do you think? If you have solved this problem in guided practise, do you think... Because you have solved this problem, can this help you to solve the next one? 'Cause you've already multiplied by 10, do I need to do anything else? Or can you use that answer to find out what would happen if you multiply a hundred?
I think it's now because, by experience now, the questioning... Where do you question? Where do you get them to pause and reflect? Where do you get them to see now? Comparing it. Sometimes, as teachers, we discuss what can be the misconceptions, what can be the models, but you're never sure until it comes.
Many times, I've had showcase lessons, and I feel like, "Okay, this is going to be like this." But it turns out completely different. The lesson went somewhere else: how children solve the problem and discussion. You can never actually plan it exactly what's going to happen in the lesson because it's in the moment. I feel, as teachers... As myself, I feel more experienced in... Where do I pause? Where do I not stop them? Now, they've asked me so many questions. Which question I'm going to pick on? Get deep. But this question will pick on the next lesson because you don't want to say too many things, but you don't want to stop their learning curve.
You say, "Well, that's a brilliant thing. We will explore this in the next lesson. Right now, let's focus on this bit," because it can happen... Children will give you so many things. Then, you just think, "Okay, where..." Those decisions you have to make during the lesson because you don't want to confuse those children who are struggling if you give them too much. But you don't want to stop the high attainers who are going thinking beyond to say, "Well, okay, we'll explore that. Can you explore it and let us know? We'll start the next lesson with your method." You're not stopping that child, but you're not really explaining it there and then. You don't want to lose a child who's made that connection with your key/main idea you wanted everybody to get. You've not stopped the other person, but you've also not really made it complicated for the other child.
Do you think that having that discussion in the classroom... Can you see the wheels turning, I guess, is my question, with the students?
A lot of times. It is interesting that you've just asked me this question. Again, I'm referring back to the recent lesson I was doing. A child was confused and actually chained the answer to the right one but couldn't explain. When I asked him, "How do you know?" He said, "I have no clue." But then, when we looked at the textbooks, he said, "Miss, I understand that now." You do see the light bulb movements. Some children is getting it straight away and not thinking about how I'm explaining. Some are just not really getting it. But then, when they use the concrete, they'd start understanding. Some have to make the pictures to understand. Some actually get it when they're doing guided practise. "Oh, now I understand. Now I can apply. Now I understand what teacher was saying before or child A was doing. I see it in the textbook. I understand that now." Or we are doing guided practise. You definitely see children getting at different points in the lesson.
Then, you might see somebody who's not understood the concept properly, even the at end of the lesson. But you've given them all the right experiences. Then, you identify... "Okay, is it a whole class that I have to help? Is it just a group of children?" Then, you can give them a pre-teach the next morning or some point, but then you move on to the next one as a whole class. That's all your formative assessment to see where you're going next.
It does sound like being given the opportunity to... Like you mentioned, having the concrete physical resources there or journaling or using the workbook, it just seems like a really good approach because, of course, we know that not all people learn the same.
Having those different approaches helps-
Helps everyone learn.
The way they need to learn.
Especially with fractions, I will say. You can teach them those rules about... This is your numerator. This is your denominator. But until you actually give them a strip of paper and explain this is a whole. This is a part of whole. Then, they understand it better. Even if a child wants to know, you can start by saying, "Okay, everybody gets a strip of paper. Can you show me thirds? Can you show me halves?" Unless they actually physically do it, it's not as visual for them. The understanding is not... We talk about deep understanding. Do they understand what a whole is? Do you know what a third is or a half is? Have they seen it/physically done it rather than just giving the models on there? It's very important for them to do it. See it.
Makes sense to me. What do you think, Adam?
Yeah. I mean, there's a lot involved. I think that's the other thing that comes across loud and clear is that... Well, twofold, really: one, that there's a lot involved. But thankfully, these are structures that we can understand. As a teacher, I think what's also helpful is understanding that I can just look at elements of it and think, "Right, that's the part that I'm going to focus on and get a little bit better at that. Then, I'm going to look at this and see if I can get a little bit better at this element." I think that that's a nice thing that's been talked about in amongst this episode, is, I think, those structures help because if I cast my mind back to 20-plus years when I first stepped into a first classroom, it was a bit of a guess.
I didn't know how to help everyone. I just tried to do as much as I could. But you run yourself ragged, and you also have to accept that you're never going to see 30 children. It's impossible. I've never been able to do it in all of my teaching career, and I've tried really hard. But what I would say is what makes it easier is when we know there's a structure that we can follow and that there's elements to that structure that, as I said, we can focus on and work on. It's not just pulling out random elements. "Oh, I'll try really hard at this." Then, another random element that. "Oh yeah. No, no. Now I'm going to try really hard at this," because that's really unsustainable. It's quite demoralising as well if you're putting all this effort in, and it's not working.
No, I think there's lots to go on there. But it's encouraging that it's there, that that structure's there, and that we can identify it and work with it. That's got to be good for the children that we teach.
Yeah, absolutely. Sana, so great to have you on. Thank you so much for really clearly describing how we can work with a classroom full of different types of learners. It's exciting to hear that we've moved beyond the teacher standing at the front of the classroom and telling the students what it is they need to learn. It's very exciting. I really appreciate you sharing your knowledge with us. Hopefully, we'd love to have you on again. Thanks so much for joining us today.
Thank you for joining us on the School of School podcast.