Primary maths - 'I don't focus on getting the right answer'

16th January 2009 at 00:00
Guided maths can be a golden opportunity for pupils to find their voice, says John Dabell

It has been argued that when a sizeable chunk of lesson time is dedicated to direct teaching of small groups, guided maths leads to better standards of numeracy. But it can easily take the wrong shape and form if it is not planned in response to pupils' needs.

For guided maths to really work, you will need someone to observe you and give you feedback. When done well, it means teachers intervene effectively, assess formatively and ensure pupils are challenged and supported to meet their potential.

It works best when it is embedded within your daily maths lesson so that everyone gets a chance to experience maths at a different speed and to learn as part of a small community. It works in a similar way to guided reading and writing.

Children may be grouped flexibly according to ability, need or focus. There are usually six to eight in a hub and the session is normally short (up to about 20 minutes) and focused, with a clear learning objective in mind.

Pupils benefit from the small, secure learning environment because they receive immediate feedback on success and further areas of development.

The guided teaching approach, whether in literacy or maths, relies upon having explicit and consistent rules or boundaries that are recognised by pupils. Effective strategies include building teacher "unavailability", creating task management boards and setting acceptable levels of noise for those working outside the focus group.

Its success depends on tuning into what children need the most help with, so it has to be purposeful and meaningful. This is an opportunity for talking in and about mathematics so activities need to be discussion-rich and challenging. It can be an opportunity for precise teaching, but not at the expense of pupil talk, otherwise guided maths quickly turns into "sit and listen to the expert".

For the teacher, guided maths is a time for evaluative listening, judicious intervention and planting questions. It's also an opportunity for on-the-spot conferencing and getting to know children better.

There is no definitive guide on how to do it. What you do and how you do it should form part of an audit of self evaluation so that members of staff can share ideas and experiment.

You might re-run a shared session together, extend a group or hold a mini- surgery to slow down the pace a little and remove obstacles.

I tend to use guided maths sessions as a way of moving children out of their comfort zones and increasing their risk taking. To furnish my groups I use strategies, ideas and a bank of questions I know will provoke discussion and disagreement. For example, I might use a maths concept cartoon to stir up different ways of looking at the same problem or I might use an open-ended investigation or word problem to dissect and interrogate. What I don't focus on is getting the right answer, especially when there isn't just one correct version. The journey leading up to the destination is more interesting, especially if we go off-road.

Helping children to articulate their ideas is the key to building confidence and promoting independent learning skills, especially for English as an additional language and special needs learners whose voices might not always be heard.

Guided maths is not about setting a group some work and letting them get on with it. It is a golden time, characterised by learning conversations where pupils talk clearly and accurately about mathematical ideas as a joint venture.

John Dabell is a Year 6 teacher and maths co-ordinator at Forest Fields Primary and Nursery in Nottingham.

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