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ACME report, December 2012
Raising the bar: developing able young mathematicians


At NRICH we are interested in students and pupils of all ages and all abilities.  Every day we receive letters or emails from independent users of our activities who tell us about their ideas or ask questions about a particular aspect of mathematics. Recently we have been receiving an increasing number of communications from teachers who get in touch to tell us about something that happened in their classroom, or ask what suggestions we have for the children or students in their classes. Often these questions are about students who achieve really highly and seem to be way ahead of their peers. They ask us what, as a classroom teacher, they should be offering these students to make sure they stay engaged with maths in the long term.

As you can read elsewhere, we know that schools usually accelerate highly achieving students into the next year's programme of study, or even further ahead than that. We’re always a bit skeptical about this as we think it’s preferable to become a better mathematician by deepening understanding of less mathematical content, than skate over the top of it quickly. So that’s why we were really pleased to read the latest ACME report ‘Raising the bar: developing able young mathematicians’. 

ACME publishes papers such as these as a result of collating research, evidence and views of the community. In summary ACME states that as a country we are ‘significantly underachieving in terms of developing able mathematicians’, because we do not have enough of them who choose to continue to study maths, or maths related subjects, in further and higher education.

ACME suggests three guiding principles out of which emerge eight recommendations.
These guiding principles are:
• Potential heavy users of mathematics should experience a deep, rich, rigorous and challenging mathematics education, rather than being accelerated through the school curriculum. Acceleration encourages ‘shallow mastery’ and often concludes with dissatisfied students giving up mathematics altogether.

• Accountability measures should be developed to support this rich form of learning rather than rewarding acceleration to the next stage.

• We need to invest in all those 5-16 year olds with the potential to excel in mathematics, rather than focusing attention on the top 1% or so, which tends to happen at present.


What would this mean in practice?

In primary schools this would mean teachers being supported to know what deepening understanding looks like – perhaps helped by an interpretation of the National Curriculum that focuses on more sophisticated thinking and reasoning rather than acquisition of knowledge. At NRICH we have already started this – have a look at our curriculum planning documents which map rich activities to the curriculum content.

It would also mean achieving some coherence about what measures schools have to report publicly. The government has recently changed the accountability for secondary schools so that students who take GCSEs early are not counted in schools’ target figures – and yet the recent Bew Report continued to promote the decision that primary schools report the number of pupils who achieve level 6 at the end of year 6. Not a good example of joined up thinking!

Finally it would mean that all pupils would be entitled to a rich diet of mathematics. This could mean a sea change in some schools, where at present children are identified as being ‘not good at maths’ at a very early age and from then on receive a diet which consists mainly of repetition and practice. Teacher expectation is a very powerful factor in how highly children succeed and ability grouping children at a young age can have profound effects on how well they succeed, or don’t. If you’d like to be convinced of this, take a look at some of Jo Boaler’s work, or Carol Dweck’s ‘Growth Mindset’ writing.

If you’d like to read the whole report ‘Raising the bar: developing able young mathematicians’, you can download a copy of the (not very long) paper here. And if you'd like to know more about NRICH's view on ability, there are a whole suite of articles listed below.

Supporting the Exceptionally Mathmatically Able Children: Who Are They?
Supporting Highly Able Mathematicians - Teachers
Supporting Exceptionally Mathematically Able Students - Parents and Carers
Supporting Exceptionally Mathematically Able Children - Resources for Parents and Carers
Supporting Highly Able Mathematicians - Academic Writing
The Templeton Projects


‘Informed, skilled and sensitive teaching is vital. Teachers need to be alert to opportunities to develop rigour in mathematics learning. They also need to be alert to the ability of those students who are able to make links and connections between mathematical concepts. The development of mathematical talent is a long-term process that is dependent on many variables, including quality teaching and a student’s attitude to the subject....... Identification of particular potential should be as a result of response to the provision of a challenging and engaging curriculum for all students.' 
 

This article was published in February 2013.