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Kirsti Ashworth was one of four NRICH Teacher Fellows who worked on embedding NRICH materials into their teaching. Kirsti worked with pupils from Key Stages 3, 4 and 5 during the year 2008 -2009. This article talks about her experiences .


[Readers may also be interested in other similar articles about teachers using NRICH]

Who can I use it with?

I found that NRICH problems can be used with anyone. I tried using activities with all of my groups from Year 8 to Year 12. I teach the full range of abilities.

I mainly chose to focus on my Year 8 group. They are a middle ability group who will be aiming for level 6 to 7 at the end of Key Stage 3. I decided to use them for several reasons. Firstly, I wanted to see how a group of their ability would get on with NRICH resources as I have used problem solving and open tasks with top sets before but not often with lower ability groups. Secondly, it was a challenging group to work with.

How do you start?

I went through my Year 8 scheme of work and matched it to the curriculum mapping document on the NRICH website. For each topic, I started with the Year 8 activities but also had a look at the Year 7 and Year 9 ones. If there was a problem I really liked, I followed the links on the bottom of it to other problems that hadn't made it onto the mapping document. I also did this for curriculum areas that didn't seem to have many activities suggested.

I started off with short tasks and problems that wouldn't involve too much of a change to my teaching style and might not be too much of a shock to my pupils. They also have the advantage that if the pupils really didn't get on with them, I could just bin them and move on.

Then I started looking for tasks that could be used to consolidate the topics we had covered. I used these initially to replace the worksheets I would have used previously, although obviously at greater depth and with greater scope for going off at a tangent.

Finally, I used a series of problems that focused on problem solving skills and techniques rather than specific topics.

Does it have to take up an entire lesson?

Definitely not. I started out using short fairly closed tasks and problems that I could use as starters or plenaries. Virtually all of the problems that I introduced to the class initially were relevant to the topic that we were covering at that time.

I was surprised (although I probably shouldn't have been) at how long it took the pupils to notice that the activity was related to the bit of work we had just been doing. I often had to give them a huge hint to that effect. I also found that the activities took a lot longer than I expected before I started. I did have lessons when the starter took 40 minutes!

What happens then?

I found that I had to make some difficult decisions early on in the project. When the starter began to stretch out I had to decide if it was worth pursuing or whether we should just cut our losses and move on to the main part of the lesson without having finished.

I took both approaches. It depended entirely on how it felt at the time. There were a couple of starters where we were really motoring and it was bringing out some excellent maths or exposing huge misconceptions. In those cases I stretched it out as long as it seemed to need. At other times it just seemed to be taking a long time because pupils weren't very interested or were finding it too challenging. So I called a halt and moved on. In those cases, on a couple of occasions some of the brighter pupils came to find me at the beginning of the next lesson to tell me that they'd carried on with it at home and this is what had happened.

But there isn't enough time!!!!!

That was my real concern before I started this. I suppose that this was another reason that I focused on my Year 8 group -they were my only non-exam class so the pressure to get through the curriculum was not as great as with my other groups.

I certainly felt under pressure initially, especially when activities took longer than I had planned. As the pupils became more used to solving problems and working in groups, the whole thing became slicker and more focused. A lot of the slowness initially is time wasted with pupils becoming accustomed to a new way of working and having a panic about doing something different.

I used the problems to consolidate their learning more than to discover new topics, although there were times when I used them to introduce new concepts and then backed it up with a bit of chalk and talk to make sure they had all taken it on board. I did find that after about half a term or so, I could use the problems and be confident that the pupils were not only covering the curriculum but exploring it at greater depth than before -in the same amount of time. I had to get to the point where I was happy to use the problems in place of a nice exercise with 50 questions.

What if it goes horribly wrong?

Firstly, you have to think carefully about what you mean by horribly wrong. I felt very uncomfortable at the beginning of the project with using problems as consolidation or even to cover topics as I didn't feel that I could be sure that every pupil would leave the room having learnt the bit of maths I wanted them to learn. However, as the project progressed I have gradually become more adaptable and flexible in my own approach. I am far more willing to let the task develop in the ways that the pupils want to take it rather than trying to control the outcome too rigidly. So if I introduce a problem that I think will cover adding decimals and it actually drifts off into area and perimeter then I will develop that and come back to adding decimals another time.

There were times when I did abandon an activity before I felt that it was finished, at these times it was because it had become obvious that the pupils were no longer engaged and weren't making progress, but that happens in other lessons too!

Does it have to involve group work?

No. Although I tended to use group work extensively -mainly beause the pupils felt less exposed if they were working with someone else. It also allows them to discuss what they are doing and what they have learnt and make progress by comparing ideas.

I tended to organise the class so that initially they worked in pairs and then built up into groups of four for some activities. I usually put them in boy-girl pairs in the hope that the good working practices of each would rub off on the other.

Can I just give them the problem and let them get on with it?

Obviously this depends on the group, the problem, the prevailing wind and all the rest of it. Generally though, it does need more planning than a textbook lesson the first time you use a problem. I arrived at the following strategy that I found worked with my Year 8s. I gave them the problem and let them have a minute to read it through and think about it in silence. At the end of that time they were allowed to ask me any questions they needed to clarify the meaning of any words or symbols (but not how to tackle the problem or about the maths involved). I then put them into their pairs to talk over the problem and discuss whether there was an obvious starting point or what bit of maths they thought they might need. I allowed anything up to five minutes for this depending on the level of complexity of the question.

Once they were working on the problem, I circulated and eavesdropped on their discussions. If I heard anything that I thought would help the rest of the group I called on pupils to share their thinking. This could be anything from a partial solution to a method such as "Let's put it in a table". If all the pupils seemed to be missing a trick like working methodically I would stop them and suggest a method.

If pupils finished the task quickly then I tried to have an extension question for them. "What if...?"

What happens when they can't even get started?

I introduced problem solving and open-ended tasks gradually to my groups. We started with short tasks and built up. There was never a time when no-one had a suggestion (even if it was wrong) that could give us a starting point. There were times when it needed drawing out and adapting but I did this with the class as a whole so that they could start to see possible strategies. This meant that as the project progressed pupils began to build up a range of strategies. That way when their initial approach didn't work they had another plan to fall back on.

They also began to learn that maths isn't just about getting the right answer, it's also about playing about with concepts and exploring what is happening. As they realised this they started to make more and more suggestions and see links between different parts of the curriculum.

What if there isn't an answer?

The first time this happened, the pupils hated it. They felt that I had tricked them into doing lots of work and then there wasn't an answer. However in a lot of ways this was a real turning point as they stopped being inhibited by the need to get it right and started thinking more about strategies they could use and what might happen if...

Is the outcome measurable?

As the year progressed, my Year 8 class became noticeably more interested and engaged in the problems. This enthusiasm spilled over into other lessons. The vast majority of the brighter boys are now keen to be involved in the tasks and persevere on them. The girls no longer approach lessons assuming that they won't be able to manage the work. They are all willing to have a go and are flexible in how they approach problems. They will try more than one approach if the first one does not work.

The culmination of this was their reaction to a recent topic on 3D shapes. I had intended to use a problem for one lesson. The pupils became so engaged in it that they asked to move on to the computers to spend another lesson on the problem. Some of them spent 45 minutes on a single problem, trying different things. At the end of that lesson they asked to carry on with it in the next lesson. That level of engagement, enthusiasm and feeling of ownership would have been unthinkable at the start of the year to say nothing of the idea that the boys could have spent that long actively involved in a lesson.

Spreading the word

Having been through the Year 8 scheme of work and selected some tasks and problems for our various modules, I gave an annotated scheme of work to the other members of the department who were teaching middle to upper ability Year 8. I also provided them with printouts of the activities and any necessary resources that I had used and felt to be successful. I passed on any tips that I thought would improve the activity or any hints or tips that the pupils might need to access the task. After a term or so of this, I found that these teachers started to find their own activities and share these with each other and the rest of the department.

I also ran a workshop on an INSET day for teachers from across our local federation of schools on using NRICH and other rich tasks in the classroom. I delivered the same session for PGCE students at the University of Cumbria.