The Headteacher: New teaching method adds up perfectly

Ian Wright is the headmaster at Pocklington Prep School
Ian Wright is the headmaster at Pocklington Prep School

Although pupils might be surprised to hear it, teachers are constantly learning, too, and at Pocklington School we regularly review our teaching methods to ensure we’re incorporating best practice.

Theories about the best approach to learning come and go but we like to think that, between us, our staff have become pretty good at identifying methods which will be of lasting benefit.

Maths is traditionally regarded as a difficult subject to teach and learn, largely because it’s so precise, answers are either right or wrong and pupils can become easily discouraged if they don’t grasp a concept immediately.

One of the problems our school staff had identified, one that’s common with any school, is the lack of uniformity that can result when children are taught by a number of different maths teachers as they progress through the years.

We’ve come across a method that embraces both traditional teaching and the re-focused national curriculum for mathematics, which places greater emphasis on understanding maths concepts, as well as making connections between different areas of maths.

It’s based on the premise that to get the best understanding of maths, you must first be able to calculate mentally and be properly numerate.

Big Maths, as it’s called, is being embraced across a number of schools, with encouraging results.

We’ve introduced this resource at Pocklington Prep School this year.

Not only are the pupils finding it motivational and fun, their mental recall of times tables facts, for example, is already noticeably faster.

Big Maths introduces a step by step, systematic and structured approach to learning. Youngsters progress through a clear framework, using logical building blocks of learning, and moving from one challenge to the next.

They begin by mastering counting, then recalling number facts: 3 + 6 = 9, for example, before moving on to related ‘It’s Nothing New’ facts, such as 300 + 600, and 3p plus 9p, which shows they can apply the same principle to any unit or measure. This particular section has seen pupils’ confidence levels soar as they realise how widely their knowledge can be applied. The final stage combines the first three stages to provide a secure, sequential calculation process.

Each of our Year Three and Four have their own Big Maths booklet, which they move through at their own pace. They love taking it out at the beginning of their lessons, knowing exactly where they are in their learning and what they need to do to progress to the next step.

The booklets and associated timed worksheets mean teachers, and parents, can instantly see whether children are secure enough at one level of understanding to progress to the next. If they haven’t mastered something, they can’t just opt out and keep their heads down; every stage of their progress is tracked and they don’t move on until that particular skill is hardwired. Teachers can also spot any gaps in pupils’ knowledge, and can either revise the skill with the whole class, or with an individual or group.

Big Maths also makes maths more fun by introducing jingles, songs, games and characters which they associate with each task. Because Big Maths offers such individualised learning, children progress at whatever pace suits them, challenging themselves rather than feeling overshadowed by the cleverest person. ‘Beat That!’ timed worksheets challenge them to increase their own ‘best ever’ score, building momentum by tapping in to youngsters’ natural competitiveness.

The brighter and more competitive pupils certainly don’t miss out, though, as they can continue to test themselves through progressively more difficult worksheets. Two pupils praised publicly for getting every question right within 45 seconds, for example, could be working at very different levels.

We’ve found our pupils respond well to the clear structure and challenge, children love to know where they are and what’s coming next. Having self-awareness at any age, knowing exactly what’s expected of them, also makes children more likely to achieve it. Confidence blooms as they “tick off” each stage. The aim of Pocklington Prep School is to align the teaching of core maths skills at every stage, as if each pupil is being taught and tracked by the same teacher every year. This isn’t to say we aim to stifle teachers’ individuality, or pupils’, it’s about giving both the resources to achieve a more consistent approach, which makes it easier to drive progress forward.

By the time they leave year 6, and for many, well before that, we expect them to have such a sound grounding in mental maths that calculation is second nature. Because once you’ve mastered the core skills, the whole world of maths opens up to you. Our aim is that pupils will go on to join the senior school armed not only with a firm grasp of the core maths skills, but also with an enthusiastic and confident approach to the subject which will allow them to fly.