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Children can be mathematicians too: it’s not about more learning – it’s about better learning

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How do you successfully engage all pupils in their mathematics and encourage their enthusiasm for learning? Rejecting simplistic solutions such as more or narrow, results focused teaching, Dan Port and Sarah Rowntree, Year Six teachers at Meadowside Primary School in Gloucester, explain how they instead wanted to change existing practice and enable children in their school to get excited about problem solving and see themselves as mathematicians. This started with a whole school initiative known as Maths Detectives.

child and mathsIt’s all for Ofsted, right?


Standards in years five and six were not where they needed to be. This was about children’s attainment, not what Ofsted may or may not want.  We considered doing more maths but decided for everybody’s sanity, this was not going to work. We needed to encourage the children into thinking about maths differently and reinvent our approach.

We began with Fridays: how successful was a conventional maths lesson on this day? Children were less engaged and already thinking about X-Factor or football at the weekend – Maths Detectives was born!

We were keen to promote a sustained change in the attitude and understanding of staff and pupils. It was our aim to target pupils across a range of attainment levels, not just those on the Level 3/4 threshold. We identified our success criteria as:

  • More effective collaboration between children when problem solving, recognising the value of peer learning
  • Evidence of greater resilience and determination amongst pupils of all abilities
  • Increased opportunities for talk and changes in the type of talk heard in mathematics

In relation to mathematics, resilience can be defined as ‘that quality by which some learners approach mathematics with confidence, persistence, and a willingness to discuss, reflect and research’ (Johnston-Wilder and Lee, 2010: p.1). It is not only about what pupils understand, but also about them knowing what to do if they do not understand (ibid.). The attitude displayed by the learner is crucial: Schwartz (2006) suggests that whilst many equate intelligence with learning, it is also dependent on developing the skills of perseverance and tenacity. Resilience can have a positive effect on motivation, encouraging children to focus on ‘overcoming learning obstacles rather than despairing over failure’ (Subotnik and White, 2006: p.2)

We can lessen the fear associated with problem solving if we provide children with plenty of experience from a young age, emphasising the process rather than the answer (Frankell, 2007).  Wigley (2008) references the dangers of leading children through a process and asking them to practise the method, stating that this can lead to learners struggling when faced with unfamiliar problems as they lack the strategies to explore.  Instead, he recommends the ‘challenging model’ where children are encouraged to re-interpret and make sense for themselves.  They must be active in the learning process, reflecting, constructing and testing theories.  For this to be achieved, there should be an element of struggle when problem solving as ‘confidence, persistence and learning are not attained through repeating successes, but by struggling with difficulties’ (NCETM, 2008: p.20)

So what is Maths Detectives?

A weekly challenge with room for children to extend their learning, ask a lot of questions and not necessarily worry about finding the correct answer. We paired up Years 5 and 6 and split the children into four ability groups led by teaching assistants and teachers. This meant smaller group sizes and created a more focused atmosphere in the classrooms. Mixing year groups provided the opportunities for staff to work collaboratively, planning for the children and sharing best practise.

Examples of the activities included: the price of football survey; six figure grid references; whodunits through mathematical clues; maths trails around the school; outdoor learning; who can make a paper plane fly the furthest?; Fibonacci sequence and Eratosthenes’ prime number discovery.

Word soon spread. Maths seemed to be exciting on a Friday morning in Years 5 & 6 and other staff wanted in on the act.

After sharing the idea in a staff meeting, staff agreed that there was too little time allocated to problem solving in the mathematics curriculum and children were not given enough opportunities to practise using and applying their skills. We all felt there was a reluctance to tackle open ended tasks. Children viewed problem solving as a one way activity, with many not able to explain their approaches, reasoning and conclusions.

It was time to go whole school.

The impact was immediate. Staff were motivated and enthusiastic and offered many resourceful ideas. They also suggested how other areas of the school could be utilised, demonstrating a willingness to ‘think outside the box’. The conclusion was that many objectives covered in the classroom could be tackled practically around the school with little additional organisation but a greater ‘wow factor’ for the children. Staff enjoyed being creative and high levels of interaction were evident as expertise was shared.

Collaborative and practical learning experiences generated activity and enjoyment allowing pupils to explore and make sense of things in their own ways. One Maths Detectives group even turned a small idea into a profit making opportunity. They set up a pop-up café in the heart of the playground and presented their findings at the pupil conference in Gloucester.

The results – the non SATs kind

After a year of the project we decided to find out the impact using pupil conferencing, reflections of staff and attitude surveys.

Resilience amongst pupils had improved with 100% of children in the key stage 2 sample and 83% of children in the key stage 1 sample (30 children in each year group) finding satisfaction in problem solving. At the start of the year this was around the 50% mark. A Year 3 child concluded that some problems took a long time to solve and even teachers did not always know the answer. The Year 5 response was that problem solving made you think and meant you were learning. The percentage of children no longer nervous about problem solving had risen from around 30% to 50% in all year groups and to 75% in Year 6.

Talking about maths became an additional focus alongside Maths Detectives. During pupil conferencing it was recognised that talking helps you remember because ‘you have to explain to each other’ (Year 2 pupil).  Giving learners the opportunity to ‘talk like a mathematician’ means they become someone who ‘knows and can do mathematics’ (Johnston-Wilder and Lee, 2010: p.4).

It has revitalised mathematics teaching and learning and created a buzz for staff and children. The whole school approach was essential for this. We are aiming to expand Maths Detectives in order to develop cross-curricular links and for children to understand maths in the real world.

Quality or quantity?

It would have been easy to sacrifice part of the afternoon for another maths lesson. Maybe lose an hour of P.E here, part of geography there or even shunt PSHCE. What would this have achieved? What about more testing? In Years 5 and 6 it can be easy to slip into statistics mode. We’re sure they would have been compliant, but that is the problem. We don’t want them to be compliant, passive learners. We want them to value all their subjects and take more responsibility of their learning. The improvement of real life mathematic skills was the goal and we’re on our way to achieving that.


Frankel, H. (2007) Putting fun into the equation, TES, found at http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=2342074

Johnston-Wilder, S. and Lee, C. (2010) Developing mathematical resilience, BERA Annual Conference 2010, 1-4 Sep 2010, University of Warwick Mathematics Matters (2008) NCETM

Schwartz, A.E. (2006) Learning Math Takes Attitude, Perseverance and Courage Education Digest

Subotnik, R.F. and White, G. in R.J. Sternberg and R.F. Subotnik (ed) (2006) Optimising Student Success in School with the Other Three Rs: Reasoning, Resilience and Responsibility            , Greenwich: Information Age Publishing

Wigley, A. (2008) Models for Teaching Mathematics ATM

Williams, P. (2008) Independent Review of Mathematics Teaching in Early Years Settings and Primary Schools,  Nottingham, DCSF

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