Together right from the start

21st January 2000 at 00:00
Whole-class teaching means making sure everyone is with you from the beginning, say Sue Jennings and Richard Dunne.

The Framework for Teaching Mathematics is a revolutionary document. Not only does it provide yearly teaching objectives for primary teachers but it also describes teaching methods rarely employed in thiscountry. After many years of child-centred learning with an emphasis on differentiated tasks, teachers have been asked to adopt a new approach, whole-class teaching.

Yet merely reorganising tables and chairs cannot achieve this. It requires a new way of thinking about teaching and a new set of beliefs about how children learn. Such aspects are glossed over in the documentation. Sadly, many of the teachers who have attended three training days of uninspiring talk and death by overhead transparencies have emerged with similar memories: do a lot of oral work; deliver a three-part lesson strictly to the recipe and keep the class together.

Why do we need a new approach to teaching maths? Over many years in international comparative tests, English children have achieved poor results. Research indicated that teaching the whole class together was the reason for other countries' success. Yet this methodology is based on an entire philosophy of teaching and learning rather than mere classroom organisation. Before we can implement the methodology, we need a deeper understanding of this philosophy.

Consider the mental and oral starter. What is the purpose of this activity? Why ask questions to sharpen skills at the beginning of a lesson? We are told that we are "warming up the children's brains" - a quaint view that might have come from the 19th century. We still know very little about how children learn. However, what we do know should affect how teachers conduct the starter.

All teachers know that children are encouraged to learn when they regularly achieve success, and are discouraged by failure. The lesson starter must be designed to ensure that all children can succeed. Although the Framework recognises this goal, some of its advice reveals an underlying child-centred pattern of ideas. Teachers are advised to designquestions for individual children so that each child is able to give an answer. This is not in the spirit of whole-class teaching. Over 10 minutes a child may have to answer two questions. It does not take any child very long to realise that there is no need to listen unless their name is called.

Children are also very astute at recognising when they are being asked only "simple" questions, while others are given more difficult ones. These question and answer sessions do little to help children learn. They can provide a stage for public failure and public acknowledgement of class position. This is testing and not teaching.

In an alternative method, all the children are asked the same question. The teacher asks children to hold up number cards for answers. In some respects, this is whole-class work. Each child is given sufficient thinking time as the cards are held to the chest until the teacher gives a signal. The teacher gets immediate feedback on children's success or failure at the question. She can monitor those children who make mistakes and those mistakes are private rather than public. However, the method provides no indicators for whole-class teaching as opposed to whole-class work. Meanwhile, individual children recognise their own failure; repeated failure will discourage and demotivate.

Deliberate and sensitive prior teaching is needed to enable children to succeed. The starter time could, instead, be used to establish whole-class knowledge of a topic. Successful whole-class teaching requires the establishment and re-establishment of a common knowledge base so that all children progress together. It is not based on testing and public mistakes. Maximum assistance in the starter will enable children to succeed and maintain their natural desire to learn.

For longer-term, sustained improvement beyond familiarity with number, we need to gain a deeper understanding of whole-class pedagogy. Teachers need knowledge as a base for their creativity rather than recipes to be imitated.

Sue Jennings is head of Initial Teacher Training at the University of Exeter and Richard Dunne is a curriculum design consultant

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