Stretching exercises

25th February 2005 at 00:00
Nic Barnard meets a teacher who uses accelerated learning to help all pupils progress in maths

Sue Kerridge's son has a new puppy, a Dalmatian. It's the perfect excuse for her to teach shape and space to Year 7. Twenty metres of chicken wire - how big a pen can he make so the puppy can run around outside while he's at work?

Cue 35 minutes of drawing oblongs and counting squares, as these pupils with emotional and behavioural difficulties at Elemore Hall School near Durham are introduced to some challenging concepts. Come the end, Ashley is still puzzled:"It's only a puppy, miss. Why don't you just make her a kennel?"

Well, you can't win them all. But the advances these pupils - most of whom have level two or three maths - have made are impressive.

Sue is using a version of CAME - cognitive acceleration in maths education, a teaching programme popular among teachers of gifted and talented pupils, but rarely used with low achievers and pupils with special needs.

CAME seeks to boost pupils' development by involving them in lessons that are several years ahead of their ability. The idea is not necessarily that children grasp this advanced maths, but that they think about how they learn.

At Elemore, simply delivering the traditional Year 7 curriculum has this kind of stretching effect. "This is two or three years ahead of what they should be doing," says Sue. "One child here is level two and he's doing level four stuff."

CAME, and its science precursor, CASE, were developed at King's College London - CASE in 1991, CAME about six years later - and are used by up to 1,000 schools in the UK.

Sue turned to CAME when teaching at a South Tyneside comprehensive. "I've always ended up with lower-ability children, or the ones with behavioural difficulties. But I found that with normal teaching methods, you'd teach them the same way, year after year after year, and expect by some miracle that these kids would start learning. It's not going to work." The approach, she says, "had a tremendous impact. They go from 'I can't' to 'I can'". But she only decided to take it a stage further after one of her lessons won a glowing report from a visiting Ofsted inspector. "He thought I'd rounded up the cream of Year 7. He said he'd never seen cognitive acceleration taught to anybody except the high flyers. I thought I'd better do something about it."

She applied to the Gatsby Charitable Foundation for a grant to research and develop teaching materials for four units, each of two to five lessons.

They cover number, algebra, shape and space, and data handling. Flexibility is an important feature. CAME lessons are traditionally taught about once a fortnight, but Sue might run a unit such as shape and space across three or four consecutive lessons. The number of lessons can also change. "If they get on to circles, it would be at least four," she says.

Other units, such as algebra, might be spaced out. "If they get sick of it, I might leave it and come back at it in a different guise," she says. "It depends on the class - Jthere are loads of different factors.

"These kids are hungry for more all the time. Once they achieve, they want more, but they want it now. They don't have much patience."

A control study at Sue's former school suggested that CAME was helping lower-ability pupils to outstrip higher-achievers. Over the course, they showed almost three times more improvement in cognitive tests than the control group. Now, through the Gatsby network, teachers at some 60 schools around the country are trialling the units. Sue is researching the findings from these pilots as part of her PhD at Durham University.

Professor Tim Brighouse, London Commissioner for Schools and a Gatsby supporter, said she was going back to the roots of the thinking skills movement in the 1980s. "The teachers then had remarkable success with kids rather like the ones Sue is working with. You're extending their vocabulary, but in a very focused way, enabling them to handle more abstract concepts than they would otherwise. Everybody has always looked at CAME and CASE as a good way of getting kids to improve their GCSEs - which they are - but it has success right across the board. Sue is a terrific teacher."

Professor Michael Shayer, who developed CAME at King's, is also interested in the results; the only other use of cognitive acceleration with SEN pupils to his knowledge has been in Singapore. "In this country I don't know of any. But it should certainly help, because the stress is on collaborative learning."

Sue suspects many teachers are put off by the thought of giving low-ability pupils free rein in the classroom. They may also lack the confidence and flexibility. "For example, one of the pupils today might have spotted that the biggest area for the puppy's pen is actually a circle." But she looks back with satisfaction on the lesson, where some pupils realised that multiplying the sides gave the area; and others worked out that adjoining sides of a 20-metre oblong had to add up to 10.

"I wouldn't expect them to have got the multiplication - a lot of them are still counting squares at GCSE. And spotting the number patterns is the start of algebra - we'll build on that. It also leads on to square numbers.

That's getting higher for them. The bottom line is, CAME does what good teachers have been doing for years: let the class take a bit of control."

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