Over the holidays, many teachers will be sitting down to make medium term plans for their maths lessons. This might be for the entire time or it might only be for a block of learning, perhaps two or three weeks, but I’d hope that they will be giving some thought as to what the learning will look like over the course of the whole term. They’ll be looking at assessment records or notes they’ve written on their weekly plans or elsewhere to see what the priorities are. They’ll be looking at the objectives for the year or for the next steps in learning and making sure there’ll be opportunities to visit these during the term. For Year 6 teachers, with the SATs in May drawing ever closer, there’ll probably be a particular urgency and focus on the gaps that need to be plugged before Easter.
Medium term planning is important in Maths. It has to be flexible. Even for a very experienced teacher, each class is different and some topics will end up not needing as long as we planned, whilst others will need longer or will need revisiting. Just like our weekly plans, our medium term plans should be working documents which regularly get annotated and highlighted throughout the term. However flexible it is though, it needs to be well thought through to ensure coverage of all the important topics and that will probably mean building in some contingency time, just in case several topics take longer than we imagined.
In recent years I have often been involved in monitoring planning in different schools – this is usually weekly planning rather than medium term planning, but usually I’ll be looking at several weeks at a time. Plans vary enormously in the amount of detail they give, and there are teachers whose plans give very little detail who manage to teach great lessons, and others who dot every i and cross every t but whose lessons are not so sparkling. By and large they are thoughtful and thorough and it’s clear that teachers are on the whole familiar with what their children already know and what they need to learn next. One thing that does concern me, however, is that over the last few years, I have increasingly seen a rather ‘scatter gun’ approach to planning: a lesson or two on one topic, another lesson or two on another topic and then perhaps a quick problem solving lesson on Friday. I believe there are two main reasons for this. The first reason is the way the renewed framework which was introduced in 2006 divides into blocks of learning meant to last for 2-3 weeks. In each block there is a whole plethora of possible material, and I don’t think it was ever the intention that anyone would try to teach all of this in such a short period of time, but there was such a lot there, that it was common for teachers to try to teach far too much far too quickly. The second reason I believe is the increasing pressure from Ofsted that so many schools are feeling now. I know there’s lots of debate about progress in lessons currently, but whatever the rights and wrongs of this, it has made many teachers feel they need to teach something new every lesson. It’s relatively easy to show progress within the lesson when you introduce something new – at the beginning of the lesson, most children know nothing about it, at the end they do. Whether they will remember anything about it next week, let alone tomorrow, if we don’t then revisit it, is much more open to question.
I really believe we need to slow things down. I’m not suggesting individual lessons should lack pace (although there’s possibly a debate to be had about that too), but that we should plan sustained periods of time where we focus on one topic or a few very closely related topics. Within that period of time, our children can certainly make progress within that topic, but each new step will be connected to a very recent one, and there will be time for new skills to be practised and consolidated.
As well as taking longer over topics, our medium term planning should be exploiting the natural links between different mathematical ideas and topics. So, for instance, it makes sense to teach finding fractions of amounts soon after work on division, so that children naturally see how the two things connect, and can further practise their division procedures with fractions problems. If you haven’t seen it before, take a look at the picture at the top of this blog and try to work out what comes next. Unless you see the connection between the symbols, it’s pretty hard to do (if you’re still struggling, imagine a mirror line drawn vertically through the middle of each one). Once you see the connection, it’s easy. Similarly, we can make things much more difficult than they need to be for our children if we don’t exploit the natural connections between different mathematical ideas.
So if you’re sitting down to do some medium term planning over the holidays, think about the connections you can make. Think about giving children time to really get to grips with a topic. If it’s possible, also think about the connections that can be made with other curricular areas. Would your technology topic give opportunities for weighing or measuring using different scales? Could your geography topic give opportunities for using negative numbers in context when comparing temperatures or comparing large numbers when looking at populations? Could the children show some of the information from their history topic using their newly acquired data handling skills? Don’t force it, try to make the contexts as real as possible, but teachers tend to have great imaginations so I’m sure you’ll find some creative connections.