Failure, Articulation and Learning

I recently read a blog post on another primary teacher’s website about how to teach a Mathematics lesson while on Teaching Practice. While full of good intent no doubt, I found the advice to be incomplete and therefore unhelpful to the impressionable student teacher. To summarise, the advice consisted of the following:

  • Play a game;
  • Demonstrate the problem in front of the class, step by step;
  • Get some children to try it;
  • Set an active task and include group work if possible;
  • Ask some children what they have learned.

On first glance, this might look okay. Many teachers may have started out in their careers teaching Mathematics this way. However, experience; reflection; and professional development have taught me differently. I don’t claim to be the ultimate authority on teaching, but at this stage of my career I can identify a flawed process.

The main issue I have with this lesson is its lack of discussion at the beginning of the lesson – the discussion, limited as it is, is tucked away at the end of the suggested lesson. Mathematics is ultimately a mental activity where the goal is to be able to think automatically about what skill needs to be used to solve a problem. The beginning of a Mathematics lesson should be an opportunity for children to talk about what they already know and to incorporate a new problem into the discussion. At this stage the children should be encouraged to think. The quickest and most effective way to make sure that this is happening is to encourage the children to articulate their thinking.

This is where failure comes in. The children should be encouraged to say what they think, without fear of failure. Where mistakes are made, lessons are learned. This can be done in a comfortable way for children, not by saying “that’s right” or “that’s wrong” but rather by asking them how they worked out their answer, what skills they chose and why, regardless of the answer they give. Teaching is about a lot more than ‘chalk and talk’ – it is about encouraging children to be problem-solvers. Finally, instead of just asking the children what they have learned, ask them how they learned it and why they think it will be useful. The quality of learning suffers when it is confined to the ‘repeat after me’ approach.

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