Unsolved mysteries of our time: pupil talk

Many of my lessons that aim to incorporate more group and partner work, and generally increased levels of ‘talking about maths’,  leave me wanting to bellow – for that is the only way to be heard in such lessons –

“How can you be so good at chatting yet so bad at talking?!”


Given that pupils in my school arrive with far-below-average skills in writing, a focus on speaking seems the obvious route towards building a foundation for writing elegantly about maths and using maths to write persuasively. However, this revealed (what used to be) the unexpected reality that many simply don’t know how to talk about maths, articulate their ideas, or work in pairs or groups to solve a problem that requires resilience.

Perseverance has begun to pay off with some classes, particularly higher sets – perhaps due to the unhappy, if imperfect, correlation between social skills and academic ability (or, to be precise, attainment) – and I’m beginning to understand how to run effective group work.

Last week, in collaboration with a very experienced and talented colleague (credit where it is due:), I prepared a lesson for my Y7s that required them to work in groups to solve a series of problems and try to get the most points (by writing their conclusions in a mathematically convincing way). Predictably, they were motivated by the competition aspect – or at least by the shiny scoreboard – but I think/hope they found the maths inherently interesting*.

Most groups had, by now, learned how to work together, express their ideas and, most importantly, get themselves unstuck when needed. One table – you can probably see which from the board above – struggled to get going and, when approached, complained that no one was listening to them, they couldn’t decide what to do to solve it, etc. It was clear that they weren’t actually talking to each other and that some people were simply opting out, either due to being fed up, not being bothered to put in the effort to listen and to be understood, or lacking the resilience to stick with a problem that seemed difficult to solve.

Discussion on Saturday at the ‘Learning Together Mathematics Group’ (really trips off the tongue, eh?) at SHU brought up a really good resource that I think I’ll use with many classes to get them to better focus on group work, speaking and listening.

I like that it compels all members of the group to participate (and listen) and is a non-threatening starting-point for getting pupils to practise talking in a logical and reasoned way without the additional barrier of symbols and numbers. I plan to use it with Y7 and Y8 although, sadly, I think the reading burden may be too much for one group of Y8 pupils I teach 😦 I’m trying to think of how it can be adapted to be accessible to pupils with severe learning difficulties or who have extremely limited English – suggestions very welcome.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to using this resource and, if it meets with success this half-term, I’ll probably use it early next term with all classes as part of an as-yet-vague campaign to have more groupwork and rich tasks in my lessons. A girl can dream!

*Email me if you want the resources and lesson plan from this lesson, as it’s a nice final activity for a L5c-6a group on fractions/percentages/decimals and could be adapted for other lessons.

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Filed under Education, learning to learn, Perceptions of Maths

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