The school day begins: laughing children, clattering dice, counters and playing cards abound. There’s chatter about numbers, problem-induced struggles and adults modelling and giving feedback.
Guided maths is underway.
What do I mean by guided maths? Put simply, it is an additional 20 minutes of maths learning every day. Pupils, grouped by attainment, enjoy numbers: playing with them, talking about them, representing them, wrestling with them, and asking questions about them.
It may have started as a way to squeeze more maths into the timetable to meet the expectations of an increasingly challenging curriculum, but it has now developed into a rich programme that neither teacher nor pupil would be without.
Based on the model of a traditional guided reading carousel, groups move through a range of maths activities throughout the week, sometimes working independently, sometimes collaboratively and sometimes guided by an adult.
Whereas this model for reading is rapidly going out of fashion in favour of whole class teaching, the case for guided maths remains strong.
A whole class approach is just as important for maths as for reading, increasingly so as a mastery approach dissipates through our pedagogy. If certain groups of pupils are not exposed to difficult concepts, or a ceiling of careless or unnecessary differentiation is imposed, they may be protected in the short term, but in the long run, it assures they will never be able to catch up with their peers.
This whole-class approach is not without difficulty, though. In reality, there are pupils with gaps in understanding, cognitive difficulties, maths anxiety or those that simply need concepts explaining a second time. Guided maths sessions provide a solution for many of them.
The power of guided maths sessions is the opportunity they present to teachers to respond to pupil needs precisely. The organisation of pupils into attainment groups is key and distinguishes the sessions from the usual maths lesson.
This seems controversial in the face of both my earlier comments and key educational research that promotes mixed attainment teaching. However, by grouping pupils with a common level of understanding, teachers can reach them in a way that enables more to keep up, more to develop a love of mathematics and more to reach a deep and meaningful understanding.
The sessions allow genuine assessment for learning, as a teacher identifies groups needing extension or scaffolding before the next maths lesson. To allow such precisely targeted learning, groups vary in size and make-up from day to day – fluidity is key to session design.
This immediate intervention has a significant impact and comes in many guises: revisiting or pre-teaching a particular mathematical concept, challenging those who are ready to go even deeper, giving verbal feedback, addressing misconceptions. The potential use of this precious gem of time is unlimited.
But guided maths is about much more than just teacher intervention. Pupils approach it with enthusiasm, ready to engage with each other and have fun. Not the sort of fun that randomly fills time and keeps pupils occupied while the teacher manages the real learning with a group at the front. Instead, it is hard fun, thoughtfully created through challenging problems, creative investigations, games to reinforce learning and fluency practice.
The emphasis on talk and peer support adds to the enjoyment and encourages participation by the most reluctant of mathematicians. There is talk about representations, maths in storybooks, everyday situations and objects. It is accessible to all and without limit, as increasingly precise vocabulary is used and mathematical links are noticed and verbalised.
The introduction of guided maths sessions may have been driven by a need to devote more time to maths but over time the design has become increasingly sophisticated. Guided maths is more than an interesting concept – or even a worthwhile add-on. It is an essential component of our maths offering and our pupils' increasing mathematical success.
Deborah Harris is assistant headteacher is Wormley CE Primary School in Hertfordshire