Home > #MTBoS, GCSE, KS3, Maths, Pedagogy, Teaching > Student Led Learning in Maths

Student Led Learning in Maths

Student led learning seems to be a bit of a hot topic at the moment. I’ve seen these two graphics making the rounds on twitter, I can’t find them now, but one was a slide proclaiming why student led learning was better and one was the same slide but altered to say it was worse. This of course came with great debate from all quarters.

It is also certainly a much talked about issue in the teaching and learning meetings we are having in my school.

This morning we had a great presentation from a food tech colleague who described a fantastic lesson where students had been allowed to lead their own learning on the function of eggs in cooking. A number of different recipes had been provided (as diverse as Egg Custard and Chick Pea Burgers) and students were given the choice as to what to cook and asked to investigate.

This sounded interesting, so I began to think about the applications this may have in a maths classroom. While studying for my Masters I read a lot about group work and other pedagogical approaches to the teaching of mathematics. I found that there was a lot of evidence to suggest that, on the teaching of new content, “whole class teaching”, i.e. direct instruction, was the  most effective method (Reynolds and Mujis, 1999). However, this approach can often lead to students being proficient in algorithmically following a process to achieve and answer – ie they can have an instrumental understand of the topic but not a deeper understanding of the underlying concepts. This can lead to issues when students encounter a question that is phrased in a different way or that requires a variety of mathematical topics to solve. (e.g Avital and Shettleworth, 1968, Davis, 1984 and Skemp, 1976)

This was an area that interested me and my dissertation focus was using group work and other problem solving ideas to deepen conceptual understanding at A Level maths. I found that with my cohort explicitly teaching problem solving approaches and then setting problems that required a variety of approaches to be solved in groups to be effective. Some real success was had when I used problems I had not encountered and as such was able to act like a member of the group while bouncing ideas around.

My findings backed up the work of others who had suggested problem solving as a good tool to deepen conceptual understanding. (e.g. Avital and Shettleworth, 1968, English and Halford, 1995, Hembree, 1992, Karp, 2004, Silver and Marshall, 1999, and Zeitz, 2006)

In the new maths GCSE we are seeing questions that are focussed on testing a deeper understanding using problems that require thinking about and often require a number of mathematical techniques to solve. This is a move away from predictable questions and as such, teaching methods aimed at giving algorithms to students to solve types of questions will no longer work.

One simple example is questions based on ratio. Previously ratio questions usually took one of two forms, use a ratio to scale up a recipe or split this amount into this ration. Both are easily solvable by an algorithm and I’ve seen this taught this was and correct answers given by students who don’t really know what a ratio is. Now we are seeing ratio questions that include other areas of maths, such as densities, as well as questions where the language is quite important and a better understanding of what is going on is required.

i.e. A student who is taught, “When you see a ratio you add, divide then multiply”, will get full marks on a question asking “Sana and Jo split £110 pounds in the ratio 6:5, how much does Sana get?” but may get nothing if the question asks: “Fred and Nigel split some money in the ratio 6:5, Fred gets £10 more than Nigel. How much does Nigel get?” Even though there is a comparable level of mathematics used.

This, I feel, is where group work / “student led learning” could be very effective in maths teaching. Once content has been taught students need to practice that content in new setting and to mix it up with other content that has been learned. Tasks need to be set and students need to be given adequate time to get stuck and struggle. This will build resilience and problem solving skills as well as allowing students to see where various strands of maths can be applied.

This ties in with something I read recently that Kris Boulton (2017) had written about the use of learning objectives. Kris argues that sometimes it is important not to use learning objectives as this tells students exactly what maths they need to be using to solve a problem. This is a big factor in this idea around problem solving and I would go further and say that it’s important not to set problems that involve topics you have taught in the last few lessons as this will have the same effect as having an objective such as “use Pythagoras’s Theorem to solve problems involving areas.”

I hope to write more about this in the coming weeks as I look to further apply the findings of my dissertation to KS3 and 4. My thoughts at the moment are that this “student led” approaches are good for the development of these skills once the core content has already been taught. There are, of course, many draw backs to group work and other student led approaches, but they are for another post for another day.

Reference List:

Avital, S.M. and Shettleworth, S.J. 1968. Objectives for mathematics learning; some ideas for the teacher. Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Boulton, K. 2017. Whywe need to get rid of lesson objetives. 17th April. To the real. [online] accessed 13th July 2017. Available: https://tothereal.wordpress.com/2017/04/17/why-we-need-to-get-rid-of-lesson-objectives/

Davis, R.B. 1984. Learning mathematics: The cognitive science approach to mathematics education. London: Croom Helm.

English, L.D. and Halford, G.S. 1995. Mathematics education: Models and processes. New Jersey, United States: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Hembree, R. 1992. Experiments and relational studies in problem solving: a meta analysis. Journal for research in mathematics education. 33(3), pp.242–273.

Karp, A. 2004. Conducting Research and Solving Problems: The Russian Experience of Inservice Training. In: Watanabe, T. and Thompson, D. eds. The Work of Mathematics Teacher Educators. Exchanging Ideas for Effective Practice. Raleigh, NC: AMTE, pp.35–48.

Reynolds, D. and Muijs, D. 1999. The effective teaching of mathematics: A review of research. School Leadership & Management. 19(3), pp.273–288

Silver, E.A. and Marshall, S.P. 1990. Mathematical and scientific problem solving: Findings, issues and instructional implications. In: Jones, B.F. and Idol, L. eds. Dimensions of thinking and cognitive instruction. Hilsdale, New Jersey, United States: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, pp.265–290.

Skemp, R.R. 1976. Relational understanding and instrumental understanding. Mathematics Teaching. 77, pp.20–27

Zeitz, P. 2006. The art and craft of problem solving. USA: John Wiley.

  1. benjamin
    July 14, 2017 at 4:47 am

    I’m not sure I see what you mean by student led in the context of the rest of your ideas but more varied problems sounds interesting. Have you seen the thinking classroom stuff Peter Liljedahl is working on?

    • July 14, 2017 at 5:47 am

      I have not, but I will look into it.

    • July 14, 2017 at 6:26 am

      Student led referred to the students selecting from a range of problems and leading in their groups. I wasn’t fully happy with the phrase, hence the use of quotation marks.

  1. July 16, 2017 at 6:34 am

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