An Action Research Project by Victoria Ryan (MFL)

Resilience in learning, as in life, is about being able to persevere through setbacks, take on challenges and risk making mistakes to reach a goal.

Resilience is often referred to as a quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and to come back stronger. Rather than letting failure overcome them and drain their resolve, these people find a way to rise up from a troubled time.

Research has shown that resilience is ordinary, not extraordinary and that it is not a trait that people either have or do not have. Rather, resilience involves behaviours, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed by anyone.


The vision…How do we want our pupils to show resilience?

Having researched the meaning of resilience it was important to consider which behaviours were necessary to develop in our pupils in order for them to become more independent learners.

Behaviours key to pupils being able to demonstrate resilience:

  • To be able to concentrate for long/longer periods of time (and not give up).
  • To be able to control their thoughts and emotions.
  • To enjoy challenge and problem solving.
  • To see failures/mistakes as part of the learning process and be prepared to have a go.
  • To show initiative when ‘stuck’


Research highlighted that life for our pupils isn’t exactly stress-free. What helps children in navigating the challenges they face is resilience. It has shown that resilient children are problem solvers who can face unfamiliar or tough situations and strive to find positive solutions.

“When they step into a situation, [resilient kids] have a sense they can figure out what they need to do and can handle what is thrown at them with a sense of confidence.” (Lynn Lyons, Psychotherapist)

This doesn’t mean that children have to do everything on their own. Rather, they need to know how to ask for help and are able to problem-solve their next steps.

As a Modern Foreign Language Teacher I often found pupils would say they couldn’t complete a task because they couldn’t speak the language. They would ask me for a translation rather than looking back through their work or looking in a dictionary or textbook for a solution, despite this being an obvious solution to me.

It became clear that my pupils needed to know how to be resilient and that I would have to teach them the behaviours and skills needed in order to do this.


I decided to focus my resilience research on a lower achieving Year 9 Spanish class who were particularly demotivated, needy and really just didn’t see the point in languages, despite my enthusiasm and passion for the subject. I had taught them as a group since Year 8 and they would not use the resources available to them to answer questions, rather they would ask me for answers. For a teacher with thirty pupils in the class constantly asking these questions, I was beginning to find the lessons draining. Something had to be done.

Whilst being a lower achieving set, it was a very mixed-ability group with pupils ranging from a Level 2 – 5 and a number of pupils having special educational needs and others having emotional and behavioural needs.

My initial thoughts on the group and how resilient they were that 12/30 showed no resilience at all, 14/30 occasionally showed initiative to seek solutions or use resources other than me for help and 4/30 did show an ability to problem solve themselves and attempt tasks before asking for assistance.

This was my subjective view based on classwork, homework, test results and general attitude in lessons in Year 8. There is no specific test to demonstrate how resilient a person is; rather I based this judgment on how I as the class teacher had seen the pupils handle work and situations that I had placed them in. Not a very resilient class then with only four pupils able to demonstrate resilience at the start of the year.  Something had to be done!


The first step was making “resilience” the language of the classroom. This was achieved by displaying the ‘Iceberg Illusion’ poster, explaining this to pupils by using examples of my own failures and then referring to this during lessons.

Iceberg illusion

The Iceberg Illusion by Sylvia Duckworth original image at (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

see also

It was also necessary to remember techniques as a teacher to instil resilience in pupils, so after research, I made a poster into a desk mat which I had in front of me each lesson.

The poster was based on:  ‘10 best phrases to teach resilience to your kids’ by Michael Grose at

This allowed me to change the language I used and to remind me of how I should act in order to promote resilience.

I then came up with a Resilience Plan of ten points that I would aim to do each lesson.

  1. Don’t accommodate every need.
  2. Avoid eliminating all risk.
  3. Teach them to problem-solve.
  4. Teach your pupils concrete skills.
  5. Avoid “why” questions.
  6. Don’t provide all the answers.
  7. Avoid talking in catastrophic terms.
  8. Let your pupils make mistakes.
  9. Help them to manage their emotions.
  10. Model resiliency.


Using these actions I noticed that barriers to learning/relationships were improved by the following means:

    • Awareness of the language used in the classroom – Both myself and the pupils began to talk the language of resilience often using humour to see ourselves through difficult tasks.
    • Different approaches to the four skills/exercises – Pupils took on board the advice and techniques that were taught for each language skill (reading, writing, speaking and listening) and were therefore better equipped to problem solve questions/tasks.
    • More confidence – Pupils were much more confident in their own abilities and were much less reliant on me.
    • A more positive classroom environment – Pupils would ‘have a go’ at the work rather than saying that they could not do it and just giving up. They recognised that I valued their effort more than getting the correct answer each time.

By the end of the year, in my opinion, 24/30 showed an a readiness to problem solve for themselves and attempt tasks before asking for assistance and 6/30 showed some capacity to show initiative to seek solutions or use resources other than asking me for help.

Whilst subjective, this data was again based on classwork, homework, test results and general attitude in lessons but in my opinion, all the pupils vastly improved and became much more resilient within lessons.


It is worth noting that the majority of pupils in my target class were not going on to study languages at GCSE level and that for the first time in three years, the inevitable question of “Why do I still have to study this?” or “What is the point in languages?” was not posed. This in itself was a major breakthrough and a sign that pupils not only had come to enjoy the lessons, being much more motivated as they knew the skills to problem solve, but they had also started to take pride in the work they completed feeling a sense of accomplishment when they could complete a task. Even if they got an answer wrong, they had come to realise that this was a stepping stone and part of the inevitable learning process.

Therefore in conclusion, the evidence shows that the work completed on resilience had a big impact, not just on my targeted group but also on other classes that I taught due to my language within lessons changing to a more resilience based approach.

My group and I believe that our strategies have made a difference, as this approach supports stretch and challenge allowing you to have higher expectations and avoid ‘helicopter’ teaching. It supports pupil independence and there is much less teacher dependence, however, it would be far more powerful if the language of resilience was consistent across the school. Something has to be done!

Next Steps

In order to promote resilience further this needs to become a whole school approach. Strategies that I intend to use in the next academic year include:

  • Remembering it works! Being patient with new classes whilst teaching the language of resilience.
  • Making resilience language part of school life – Success Iceberg posters in classrooms and assemblies on resilience with colleagues who have also worked on developing resilience.
  • Effort and reiteration – Spending time at the start of each lesson reinforcing the language of resilience and making expectations clear to students.
  • List of key ideas to focus on – I will choose three to four key ideas from my ten point plan to focus on with individual classes, thus better tailoring them to each classes’ needs to make them more resilient.
  • Resilience list for pupils – I will give each student the following table for their book:

Be Resilient

I’m not good at this What am I missing?
I give up I’ll use a different strategy
It’s not good enough Is this really my best work?
I can’t make this any better I can always improve
This is too hard This may take some time
I made a mistake Mistakes help me learn
I’ll never be that smart I will learn how to do this


  • Resilience level/mark at the end of each term – Rewarding attitude and effort is crucial in sending the right messages about what we value.


When will we also teach them what they are?”

We should say to each of them:

Do you know what you are?

You are a marvel. You are unique.

In all the years that have passed,

there has never been another child like you.

Your legs, your arms, your clever fingers,

the way you move.

You may become a Shakespeare,

a Michelangelo, a Beethoven.

You have the capacity for anything.

Yes, you are a marvel.

And when you grow up, can you then harm

another who is, like you, a marvel?

You must work; we must all work,

to make the world worthy of its children.

By Pablo Casals


Featured image: ‘Success’ by animatedheaven on Pixabay.  Original image licensed under CC0 Public Domain


‘Developing Pupil Resilience’

An Action Research Project by Jackie Garrett (Science)


To develop a range of practical strategies to enable learners in my classes to develop their resilience, learn from their mistakes, take risks and adopt an ‘I can’ approach to learning.


Schools have a responsibility not just to prepare pupils for passing examinations but also to develop their ability to manage challenges by making them more resilient.

My interest in this area was centred on the question: ‘Can you teach resilience?’ Many pupils believe that if something feels difficult the first time you try it then you can’t/won’t be able to do it at all.  At these times it can be easy to give up and stop trying, but, is it possible to teach them to be more persistent?

We often tell pupils to try again or make improvements but how often do we consciously use strategies to help them understand that mistakes are an intrinsic part of new learning and that the only way to fail is to give up?

My aim, therefore, was to research and apply a range of strategies within the following areas:

  • Establishing a safe learning environment where pupils can take risks.
  • Developing feedback to pupils to ensure that hard work, persistence, taking on challenges and other positive learning behaviours are given high value.
  • Taking opportunities to talk to pupils about failure (both mine and theirs) so that they gain the competence and understanding to persevere and make progress through their mistakes.


The focus for my action research project has been my Year 10 Physics GCSE group. (Ability range E+ – C+)

My initial impressions of them as a group were that they were very engaged and hardworking, but a large number of them lacked confidence, gave up easily and found failure difficult to manage.

Many were fairly passive learners who would listen intently to teacher led instruction but found independent learning or more active, challenging tasks difficult. A number would seek teacher intervention almost immediately on being given a task – without ‘having a go’ first or using other strategies to get unstuck.  Many students in the group were very ‘teacher reliant’

Background reading and research

As a new teacher at the school, my research began with conversations with colleagues about the learning characteristics of the pupils in my class. Many of their other teachers were experiencing similar behaviours in their subject areas too and a group of us were keen to work together to develop and share strategies and good practice.

Throughout the time of the Action Research my group shared experiences, successes, failures and ideas and this provided a significant source of research.

As a start point I simply googled ‘developing resilience’.

I focused in on an article published in the Guardian newspaper, teacher network, by Neurologist and Teacher Judy Willis.

(The science of resilience: how to teach students to persevere | Teacher Network | The Guardian) Tuesday 12 January 2016 07.00 GMT.

In her article Ms Willis identifies 3 main areas to focus on:

A child’s competence

“It is not uncommon for students to come to your class with past experiences that have left them feeling like they can’t move forward when a task is overwhelming.  You can help them overcome that mindset by building their confidence through experiences that develop their competence.  One activity involves showing students that some things, which seem impossible or too confusing at first, can be broken down into easy-to-understand parts.”

Their tolerance to mistakes

“When you incorporate opportunities for students to experience mistakes as an expected part of learning, you build their resilience to setbacks. Through class discussions, your own mistakes, and building pupils’ knowledge of their brain’s programming, your students will gain the competence, optimism and understanding to persevere – and even make progress – through failure.”

Their ability to set goals

“Students will engage more if they have to use the facts or procedures as tools for participating in personally relevant tasks. For example, invite students to select a recipe from a cookbook that uses standard and not metric measurements. They will want to know how to convert metric and standard measurements to make what they have chosen. The personally desirable goal of making delicious cookies or play dough will motivate them to do their sums.”

Focusing on these three areas seemed to be a sensible start point, the next phase in my research involved seeking out practical ideas and resources which might help me deliver successfully in each of my three goal areas.

The teacher toolkit website was a useful resource when it came to sourcing ideas and materials I could actually ‘use’ in my classroom:

In particular I was able to source 10 resilience phrases designed to teach children resilience courtesy of Michael Grose at kidspot:

10 phrases to teach resilience

  1. “Come on, laugh it off!”
  2. “Don’t let this spoil everything.”
  3. “Let’s take a break!”
  4. “Who have you spoken to about this?”
  5. “I know it looks bad now but you will get through this.”
  6. “What can you learn from this so it doesn’t happen next time?”
  7. “Don’t worry – relax and see what happens!”
  8. “This isn’t the end of the world.”
  9. “You could be right. But have you thought about … ”
  10. “What can we do about this?”

Another very useful resource was an image called ‘the iceberg illusion’ by @sylviaduckworth (twitter)

Iceberg illusion

This resource enabled pupils to visualise success as an iceberg with success being the 10% that people see, whilst persistence, sacrifice, hard work, good habits etc make up the 90% of success that is not seen. It seemed a useful start point to promote conversations with pupils about how to be successful learners.


  1. Referring to the iceberg (displayed on wall).
  2. Consciously using the language from the ten best resilience phrases.
  3. Describing and being open about my own mistakes.
  4. Using rewards for attitude and good learning traits not just outcomes.
  5. Chunking tasks.
  6. Fast words
  7. Assembly
  8. Report comments.
  9. Feedback.

1. Referring to the iceberg

I took any opportunity that presented itself to talk to the pupils about ‘The Iceberg Illusion’ in my classes and about the hidden traits that are behind all successful learners e.g. when a pupil had not reached their target grade on a test we would look at the iceberg and discuss how they could turn that disappointment into motivation to keep trying rather than becoming disheartened.

Additionally, I used the iceberg to promote the understanding that failure is in fact a part of the road to success and not to be feared.

2. Consciously using the language from the ten best resilience phrases.

When pupils in my classes became ‘stuck’ on a task or made mistakes, I would aim to discuss with them how to get ‘unstuck’ using the phrases outlined on the chart. I have an A3 laminated copy stuck to my desk to remind me to do this whenever the opportunity arose.

3. Describing and being open about my mistakes.

When opportunities presented themselves I would describe to pupils mistakes and disappointments that I had experienced as a learner and how I felt at the time.

Additionally I planned lessons which highlighted common errors made by previous pupils and used them to model that the strongest understandings we have do not come from what we’ve memorised but from what we’ve learnt through failure.

4. Using rewards for attitude and good learning traits.

I considered my use of the whole school reward systems as well as our faculty rewards to identify ways to ensure I was praising the process of learning and good learning traits as frequently as possible. I wanted to convey the understanding amongst the pupils that good habits, persistence and hard work were valued in my classroom just as highly as ‘A*’ outcomes.  I rewarded pupils for asking questions; sticking at a task they found difficult, taking risks and sharing their mistakes.

5. Chunking tasks.

In her article on ‘teaching resilience’ Judy Willis comments on the importance of teaching pupils how to break a large, challenging task into smaller more achievable steps in order to make better progress. At the start of the year I modelled this idea to pupils whenever the opportunity arose and took chances to plan lessons where the task could be chunked. As the year progressed I began to ask the pupils to ‘chunk’ tasks themselves when they got stuck. Phrases like “What could you do first?”, “How could you make this easier?” or “What did you do the last time this happened?” were particularly useful.

6. Fast words.

Fast Words is a technique where learners have to think quickly and put down their ideas/knowledge with very little time to think or overthink the question. It is particularly useful for teaching the meanings of key words and assessing pupil’s knowledge and understanding of subject specific language at the start of a topic.

Many pupils find it very challenging to begin with, but with practice it can get them into the habit of putting something down and having a go and can often let them see how much knowledge they have about a topic.

The rules are:

1 minute to write definition.

Use all the time

Write anything you know.

Move on when told to, even if you haven’t finished.

Key word Definition at start Definition at end Progress?

7. Assembly

I delivered an assembly on ‘Failure’ to all year groups to raise awareness of resilience in the wider school and reinforce the message that hard work persistence and picking yourself up after a failure are highly valued traits and lead to ultimate success. All of the Learning Focus Group felt that the language of resilience needs to be embedded across the entire school and continuously reinforced by all.

I found the materials I used in the assembly on Prezi, by Chris Hildrew on 2 May 2016. It was an assembly he had developed for use at Chew Valley School and exactly met my requirements.

 8. Report Comments

To reinforce the value of resilience and persistence I wanted to provide targets based on developing resilience as part of our formal target setting structures in the pupils’ yearly reports to parents.

As well as a curriculum target for each pupil, I wrote a range of targets intended to provide feedback on how each pupil could develop their resilience. Despite much searching I was not able to find anything that exactly suited my aim on the internet so I set about writing my own selection of targets.

Once written, I shared these targets with my faculty team and we agreed that all science staff would include a resilience based target in the reports for their year 10 classes as a trial exercise.

The targets used were:

  • Be open and receptive to new learning and experiences. Think positively and have a go.
  • When you have a setback in a lesson, don’t give up. Think about what you could do to improve the next time you try.
  • Try to keep going when you find the learning difficult. Stick at hard tasks and keep your focus.
  • When you are unsure about whether you have understood make sure you speak up and ask for help.
  • Learning is sometimes hard and it is not always possible to get everything right the first time. Use the feedback you get from others, and the yellow stickers in your book, to help improve your work.

9. Feedback

Throughout the year, I made a conscious effort to ensure both verbal and written feedback to pupils reinforced the language of resilience and that pupils received feedback on their learning traits and characteristics as well as their knowledge and understanding of the topic being studied.


Since the impact of my actions is often reflected in a change to pupils confidence, ability to break tasks into achievable chunks, persistence and the development of good learning habits, the impact of my actions is based on my anecdotal perceptions of the class as learners and their progress in this area from the start of the year to the end of the year.

Year 10 Physics group Start of the year: Sept 2015 End of the Year: July 2016
Perception of group ·         Hard working.

·         Want to do well/please.

·         Listen brilliantly.

·         Respond well to praise.

·         Many give up easily.

·         Most find it difficult to get unstuck.

·         Sometimes struggle to get started.

·         Very teacher reliant.

·         More confident.

·         Less reliant on me.

·         Will have a go…..

·         Recognise what is ‘valued’

·         Higher tier entry for some.

% showing good resilience 11% 37%
% showing some resilience 42% 47%
% showing very little/no resilience 47% 16%

The resilience work created interest in the school as a whole. As a result of our research the iceberg is now referred to across the school and staff are regularly using this idea to embed the language of resilience.

As part of an INSET day during the academic year 2016-2017 the resilience Learning Focus Group will facilitate a workshop on resilience to be delivered to the entire teaching staff.


When embarking on this Action research, I wanted to answer the question ‘Can you teach resilience?’

 It is very difficult to find strong evidence that it is possible to teach character in schools but, my conclusion is that it is possible to teach students a range of strategies that will build their confidence as learners, develop their ability to step up to challenges, see failures as part of the learning process and find ways through difficult tasks.

When teachers find time to talk to their pupils about how they learn, and how to become a more successful learner, my experience has been that pupils respond very positively.

Our challenge, in a system that is heavily driven by outcomes and exam success is to find the time to talk to pupils about the process of learning and to define successful learning in terms of that process, not just a final outcome.

The language that we use with our classes needs to constantly reinforce that good habits, hard work, persistence and disappointment are all an integral part of new learning and that new learning is difficult.

Our role is to enable pupils to recognise that moving from your comfort zone into the stretch zone can feel uncomfortable, but that the classroom is a safe and supportive environment in which to take that risk and then benefit from the learning rewards that will follow.

Additionally, feedback to pupils, rewards and reports need to convey the message that resilience in learning is highly valued. Targets for improvement should include consideration of how pupils can improve their resilience as well as providing information on how to improve academically.

As a group, we were all of the opinion that to have real impact, the language of resilience needs to be embedded across a whole school with all staff reinforcing the message and using the strategies whenever possible.

Finally, I would like to end on a quote from the article that first got me started on this Action Research:

“By building students’ resilience……you can help them realise that when they engage confidently with a challenge, anything is possible and failure is not something to fear. This is vitally important. After all, it’s not what students know, but what they can do with what they know, that is the goal of education.”  Judy Willis

Next Steps

Continue to use the strategies and ideas considered in this research with all my classes.

Consider extending the research for the next academic year to include links between this research and Carol Dweck’s research on ‘mind-sets’ and the latest studies on teaching mindfulness.

Additionally, continue to share resources and expertise with the wider staff, including facilitating whole staff INSET.

Sources/ Links/ References

Research was undertaken online using Google to source educational articles, websites and individual blogs, which in turn led to further links. Twitter was a valuable means by which I identified further articles and resources.

The science of resilience: how to teach students to persevere by Judy Willis:

Featured image: ‘Don’t Give up’ by Brett Jordan (original image) at licensed under CC by 4.0

Mastery in Mathematics (5)

An Action Research Project by Elizabeth Drewitt (Mathematics)


In this report I aim to share how our departmental research into Mastery in Mathematics has impacted on the students I teach.


There is no argument to the value of mastery as a life skill:

Director Dr Helen Drury says, “In mathematics, you know you’ve mastered something when you can apply it to a totally new problem in an unfamiliar situation”¹.

What better way to prepare our students for life after school than to give them the confidence to approach new situations and problems with confidence.

Mastery enables students to:

  • Develop mathematical language
  • Articulate their reasoning
  • Share ideas on approaches to problem solving
  • Grow in confidence when discussing ideas

I decided to focus on the techniques we can use as teachers to get our students ready for the road to mastery.

All teachers have experienced that:

‘Students learn better when they are curious, thoughtful, determined and collaborative.’ (Nrich)

We spend vast amounts of energy nurturing these traits within our classes. But for some students, the experience of failure or fear of failure shuts down any chance of curiosity. Expecting failure often means students cannot even consider an alternative outcome and therefore determination, thought and collaboration are pointless and avoided. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I feel this is particularly the case in mathematics, often voiced by parents at Parents’ Evening, ‘I can’t do maths’. Here I propose that maths is not something that ‘can be done’ or ‘cannot be done’. I would like to challenge the parents as to whether they know their times tables or not. It is highly likely the case that it is not maths these parents struggled with but their times tables. They did not have the basic tools to face the rest of the subject with and so encountered difficulty at every turn. I believe that for many, it was not the PROCESS of expanding brackets that caused a problem but actually the MULTIPLYING.


The importance of times tables within the mathematics curriculum cannot be underestimated, yet the importance of learning times tables is still under debate amongst professionals:

Jo Boaler argued that the UK Government position, that every child must memorise their times tables up to 12 x 12 by age nine, is ‘absolutely disastrous’. In contrast, Charlie Stripp stated knowing the times tables supports mathematical learning and understanding.

“Here at Mathematics Mastery, we believe children who have a strong grasp of their times tables are more confident when learning new mathematical concepts and, importantly, enjoy the subject more.” But note here I’ve said ‘strong grasp’ and not simply ‘memorised’.

Here I put forward the view that the road to mastery must start with each student being equipped with a tool box and in that tool box must be curiosity, resilience and……times tables!

Some students cannot/have not/will not memorise the times tables. Some think that if they do not know the answer then that’s the end of that. Full stop! If we do not give these students tools and tricks to work out the answer then we are closing the door on Mastery, opportunity and the growth of a learning identity.


Never accept I don’t know my times tables. WORK it out. ‘Not knowing’ does not equate to ‘can’t find out’.


Explicitly TEACH how to work them out.

  • count up in two’s on your fingers,
  • count sticks/dots,
  • write out the times tables each time,
  • use your fingers for the 9 times table.
  • Do 10 x {?) then add 2x [?] for the 12 times tables.


  • Time must be dedicated to times tables each week if we are to provide each student with a fully operational toolbox.
  • Bell work: fill in 5 x 5 times tables grids with random numbers. Students self-differentiate by choosing different coloured grids that represent basic times tables, reverse times tables, lots of mystery headings, larger numbers, decimal numbers.
  • For KS3 or lower ability classes, 10 minute multiplication and division challenges, results recorded and tracked.


  • Practice makes perfect, whether they are memorised or worked out.
  • Students get familiar with the method they choose to work it out.
  • Students see an increase in speed, ease at completing grids and see their own scores improve over time.
  • Take control of their own Bell Work, empowering, safe and challenging.
  • Pupil ‘A’ counting up in twos on his fingers. yr11!!!
  • Pupil ‘B’ in Year 8 showing a peer the 9x table trick using your fingers

Ultimately, we have removed a massive stumbling block that lurks on the road to mastery!


So many students do not know their times tables and believe that is the end of it…but now we have challenged this idea. Just as some people say they can’t do maths…now we can move on and challenge the idea that ‘I can’t do maths’. Mastery teaches students to move away from these barriers and

  • Develop mathematical language
  • Articulate their reasoning
  • Share ideas on approaches to problem solving
  • Grow in confidence when discussing ideas……..

BUT to articulate their reasoning they must first have an opinion. To discuss their ideas they must first have an idea. To solve a problem they must first want to find a solution. They must first form an identity as a learner. Self-worth and confidence play an enormous part. Teaching lower ability classes can often (but not always) mean the students are largely disaffected. Through perceived/experienced failure their confidence has been eroded. We must challenge the perception of mathematics being all about right and wrong answers to build up a self-esteem that is positive enough to support the mastery platform.

When I asked a new group of Year 10s to GUESS the size of ten angles they were shown, half the group did not commit to paper, stating that they did KNOW the answers. Therefore these learners denied themselves the chance to feel good – others who guessed were thrilled when their guess was close but interestingly were not crushed when their guess was way off. Their learning identity was positive and it grew in a very simple exercise. I too joined in to prove that I do not KNOW all the answers, but have the tools to either guess or work it out.

Year 8 Extension task: (LOWER ability) Having studied the rule for adding and subtracting directed numbers, I asked students to write down what THEY THINK the rule could be for multiplying and dividing directed numbers. Some students wrote, ‘I don’t know, we haven’t done this yet’. Again, they didn’t have an opinion and again these students reinforced the negative image they have of themselves as learners. They needed choices pointing out to them and then they were able to take ownership of their choices and make it their idea by giving an example. Imagine their delight when some had predicted the correct rule. Again, those who had predicted in error were not crushed – it was just an idea. The students who had developed their own idea were keen to tell everyone what their prediction was, irrespective of being right or wrong, purely because it was their own idea.


  • Give students opportunities to GET IT WRONG and show it doesn’t matter.
  • Insist (‘encourage’) students commit an idea to paper- to have an OPINIION. Having an opinion gave them a vested interest in outcome which in turn made them more likely to come up with an outcome AND remember it.
  • Admit that as a teacher/ human/ adult we don’t know everything. I am not expecting my students to KNOW everything, the joy is in the working it out.


  • Students are prepared to guess, think, form an opinion, take risks.
  • Students are more likely to see a method through to the end to see if they were right (a win-win situation)
  • Students are more likely to have confidence in the next unfamiliar learning episode.
  • One Year 10 pupil could not even say true or false to a probing question. She has no confidence in maths and so does not think about maths, has no ideas about maths, cannot possibly articulate maths………I sat down with her and asked her to guess (we’ve been working on this idea). She chose False. I encouraged her to use an amount of money to see if she was right or not. We worked through the calculation and proved it to be False. She was thrilled, smiled (!!!!!) and wrote in her book ‘so I was right!!’. Anna believes she has been very successful and her confidence and enjoyment of maths has changed enormously in just a few weeks.


¹ Drury, H. (2014) Mastering Mathematics. Oxford University Press, pp8.

Department for Education (DfE). (2013a). National Curriculum in England: Framework Document. London: Department for Education.

Kilpatrick, J. Swafford, J. & Findell, B.(eds.)(2001). Adding it up: Helping children learn mathematics. Mathematics Learning Study Committee: National Research Council.

NCETM (2014a). Developing Mastery in Mathematics. [Online] Available from: [Accessed: 28th September 2015]

NCETM (2014b). Video material to support the implementation of the National Curriculum. Available from: [Accessed 28th September 2015]

NCETM (2015). National Curriculum Assessment Materials. [Online] Available from: [Accessed 28th September 2015]

Ofsted  (2015) Better Mathematics Conference Keynote Spring 2015. Paper presented at the Better Mathematics Conference, Norwich, Norfolk

Featured image: ‘Central City Times Tables’ by Derek Bridges ( CC. BY 2.0

Building Resilience in Students

An Action Research project by Ursilla Brown (Science)

[Featured image: ‘Resilience by Ron Mader’- ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) ]


This action research focused on the concept of resilience and how it impacts on learning among our students.


Throughout my teaching career, the link between work ethic and success in students has been obvious. What is less transparent are the factors that lead some students to relish diving into a problem and being prepared to take the risk of charting unknown territory while others desperately cling to the edge, afraid to take the plunge. This fear can manifest itself in a multitude of ways. While some students are absorbed in the challenge of cracking a code or finding connections, reasons for or ‘what if’s’, those on the periphery of learning can be sitting passively, getting distressed, engaging in off task behaviour or defiantly declaring that the content is boring or pointless. With a critical mass of students in the latter category the teacher invariably works much harder than these students as she guides, cajoles, pleads and, yes, even sometimes threatens detentions for lack of effort. So, while the issue has been of long term interest to me, the catalyst to embark on a journey of discovery was the coincidence of the launch of this Learning Focus cycle of research in school with my first experiences of my Year 10 GCSE Chemistry class. Since the beginning I feel I have had a good relationship with the students. They are a friendly bunch and came to me as a class seemingly happy to be in the room but mainly passive and pretty hard to strike up a dialogue with about anything to do with Chemistry. My lesson starters engaged around half the class while the others sat in a frozen position, not doing anything wrong, but not learning or seeming to engage with the activity. My mission was to shake them out of their lethargy and take charge of themselves as learners.


My aim was to cultivate resilience amongst the students. The success criteria for this were to get the students:

  • To be able to concentrate for long/longer periods of time. (not give up)
  • To be able to control their thoughts and emotions
  • To enjoy challenge and problem solving
  • To see failures/mistakes as part of the learning process and be prepared to have a go
  • To show initiative when ‘stuck’
  • To recognise that learning is a process and takes time


The class was a middle mixed ability class. I teach them the Chemistry component of the Science GCSE.

These were my thoughts about the class at the beginning of the year:

  • Lovely class – friendly, polite but quite passive
  • Majority of ‘resilient’ students quiet and self-contained so maybe not obviously modelling to others
  • Happy to listen to instructions but want to be ‘spoon fed’
  • Not really making the connection between effort and achievement
  • I was working harder than them – re-directing, re-assuring, checking, cajoling in some cases
  • Many students would give up if they did not already know the answer


  • De-mistifying ‘being clever’. At every opportunity reinforcing to the students how the brain works and how we learn. I have explained to them and continuously remind the students how we commit information to long term memory and used two examples to unpick ‘being clever’ :
  1. How amazing we all are at speaking our own language compared to how
  2. challenging we find it to learn a new language in school. The students can see the clear link between mastery and frequent repetition, often getting things wrong initially.
  3. Me as a teacher – I reminded them why I appear to be so effortlessly good at what I teach and discuss the fact that I am immersed in it, teaching it many, many times. The reason I am an ‘expert’ is that I teach the subject matter often so my neural networks are well developed FOR MY SUBJECT MATTER
  • Resilience poster – This has become a whole school tool and it reflects the effort that is put into becoming an effective learner. I continue to refer to the iceberg at every opportunity.
  • During Directed Improvement and Response Time (DIRT – time dedicated to allowing pupils to respond to teacher feedback/making to correct, develop or improve their work) taking the opportunity to Facilitate reflection on progress and relating it to effort
  • Linking to Science of the brain – unpicking the reasons for repetition and consolidation for mastery with reference to my above examples or other skills and aptitudes. I have a visual representation of the neurone connections in the brain that I refer to when reminding the students of why practice is important and why things seem hard at first.
  • ALWAYS praising effort not achievement and linking this to life skills
  • Seating resilient students with less resilient ones and encouraging a climate of mutual support where students can move around when appropriate and support one another in their learning.
  • Liberating students from the fear of committing mistakes to paper by allowing them to write on the desks. This seems to be very effective at getting some students to take the plunge and ‘have a go’.
  • Avoid re-assuring answers to questions – reflecting back to students.
  • Scaffolding resilience training by having selected differentiated resources available to enable students to help themselves to become unstuck (Links well with SOLO)


The last column shows the actual results achieved in the GCSE. Bearing in mind the target grades are actually for Year 11, the majority of students made expected progress. It is hard to say how much is attributable to the emphasis on resilience but, anecdotally, the vast majority of the students are focused and open to giving the challenging Additional Chemistry content their best shot and, importantly, bouncing back and returning to the drawing board when they get things wrong. The pupils highlighted in red were ones I was still concerned about the level of commitment from at the time of preparing to share my findings with colleagues in our learning focus group meetings but subsequently the majority of these have sought out advice from their peers or myself to help them progress.



To summarise the findings of the ’Developing resilience’ Learning Focus group of which my research was a part:

  • We believe our strategies have made a difference but……it would be more powerful if the language of resilience was consistent across the school
  • This approach supports stretch and challenge you have higher expectations and avoid ‘helicopter’ teaching
  • This work supports pupil independence and less teacher dependence
  • Rewarding attitude and effort is crucial – sending the right messages about what we value

Next steps

I will continue to employ these strategies with the students I teach. I will continue to focus on resilience development in the next round of Action research and explore ways of embedding the language of resilience across the school.


‘Mindset’ by Dr Carol S Dweck

Lesson Plans for teaching resilience to Children by Lynne Namka

Promoting resilience in the classroom by Carmel Cefai

The Iceberg Illusion poster by Sylvia Duckworth

Developing Mastery in Mathematics (3)

Featured picture:

Maths mastery – exploration and implementation

An Action Research project by Julie Silk

Aims of the project

The aim of the investigation was to explore the changes to approaches in the teaching of Mathematics to incorporate the new style of questioning and understanding known as Mastery.

The Key Stage 3 and 4 curriculum has drastically changed, particularly with regard to the style of questioning in assessment.

Our aims

  • To clarify what “mastery” means
  • To identify changes needed to teaching styles and learning outcomes
  • To implement changes
  • To observe one another to assist with team planning and sharing good practice
  • Embed mastery in our Schemes of Work


In 2015 the new Mathematics curriculum was launched. Numbers replaced grades and a new style of examination was introduced by the examination boards. Our current Year 11 will be the first to face the challenge of the new curriculum. It was, therefore, essential that as a department we gained full understanding of what the changes were and how this would impact on our teaching. There were two main changes: curriculum content and mastery. Exam boards, education experts and teachers across the country were all offering a variety of opinions as to how this would look. It was for this reason that the faculty as a whole decided to carry out action research that would assist with this process.


Our initial discussions began with us selecting a couple of classes to work with in order to build resilience and mastery skills using plenaries that based on mastery style questions.   At the same time we set out to research more fully the definition of mastery.  It quickly became apparent that we would need to use our plenaries with all classes or some of our pupils would be disadvantaged.  In consequence we extended this practice to all classes in years 7-10.

The emphasis on moving from predictable questions where you can teach a few “tricks” to get enough marks to get a C, to a real understanding of how to problem solve with Maths is , I believe, an excellent step forward. I have always considered teaching maths to be like coaching a football team. You show them lots of skills which they can practice and master but it isn’t until they are put together in a match that the full beauty of the game can be appreciated; in our case the “match” is problem solving.


  • Research mastery
  • Change plenaries
  • Change assessments
  • Observe each other teach in peer observations
  • Share good practice within the department
  • Share good practice outside the department

Research was shared and stored in a central folder in the Maths faculty for the benefit of all.

The new style of questioning needs quite a lot of encouragement for pupils to get started and we have to build resilience as up until this year, pupils were reluctant to get things wrong in Maths.

With the new style of questions we felt that it was important for the pupils to get a realistic idea of their understanding of the work. Our new tests provided by the exam board are very challenging and pupils need much encouragement to correct their mistakes. I felt it was vital for them to persist and so for every end of unit test we do, one week later they have a retest, same style of questions but different numbers. Pupils are adapting much better to the tests as confidence grows. The younger the pupil the better they are dealing with the changes. In year 10 the tests and end of year exams have certainly spread the level of attainment, many who would normally be 4/5 borderline are struggling to achieve anywhere near their target grade while the top-end are almost on par with their counterparts from last year. We can now see that our next step is to get pupils to write down the steps taken in each question and to at least start a 6-8 mark question that they feel is at the limit of their ability.

Peer observation

At the start peer observations were used to have a look at what we were each trying out with our classes. We have a full programme of paired observation for the next academic year to further develop our skills and share best practice.


The full impact of our findings will be more evident as time goes on.

  • Test results for my year 10 groups have shown that the more able the pupil the better they have adapted to the new style questions.
  • Resilience is key to gaining marks.
  • Showing working out is now more important than ever.
  • Adoption of the Shanghai style of teaching (learning key facts, peer support, moving forward together) is important as pupils need all the mathematical skills taught readily available.


  • In the long term, changes to the curriculum will increase understanding of Mathematics by pupils
  • Resilience needs to be encouraged and perfected
  • We’ve been fortunate that Nrich has been good preparation for some of the skills needed
  • Results will rise as we develop mastery further
  • The skills we have gained can be shared with others in other departments, other schools and Primary colleagues

Next steps

  • Continue to adapt lessons to incorporate mastery plenaries
  • Increase pupil response to tests and exams
  • Use peer support to raise understanding in lessons
  • Contact Primary partners to set up a support hub
  • Focus mind set changes on the middle ability pupils who seem to have been the most affected by exam changes

Sources and references

NCETM (2014a). Developing Mastery in Mathematics. [Online] Available from: [Accessed: 28th September 2015]

NCETM (2014b). Video material to support the implementation of the National Curriculum. Available from: [Accessed 28th September 2015]

National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics. October 2014. Williams, H. (2014) Approach, Research. Mathematics Mastery Acting Director of Primary

Developing Mastery in Mathematics (2)

(Featured image: “Image Provided by Classroom Clipart“)

An Action Research project by Jodie Johnson

The aim of this project was to explore different ways in which we could embed the new ‘mastery in maths’ curriculum into our day to day teaching. The curriculum has changed dramatically for Key Stage 3 and 4 in terms of the way students will be assessed; while the content is largely the same the way in which we teach the new curriculum has to be adapted to this new style if our students are to be successful .

Our aims were:

  • To clarify exactly what ‘mastery’ means for our subject
  • What this means for us as a faculty as a whole and our teaching styles; we then wanted to work on how this should directly impact on our individual lessons and assessments
  • To begin to think about how we could allow our students the opportunity to be more resilient in our subject and therefore more ready to face the new style of questioning that they will be challenged with
  • Finally, we worked on how the mastery curriculum could be embedded more formally into our schemes of work.


Looking formally at ‘Mastery in Mathematics’ is vital for our department at this time as our current year 10 are the first to face the new mastery curriculum at GCSE level. It was essential that we took the time as a department to focus on the shifting focuses of the new curriculum; it was important that we did this together and that we did it now. In our initial meeting we wanted to address the differing opinions we had in terms of what we thought mastery was and then whether this mirrored what the new curriculum required. Once we had clarified this for ourselves it was important to us that the students could articulate what we meant by mastery.  Finally and most importantly we needed to work on how this would impact on our day to day teaching methods so that our teaching style was adapted and in turn we were preparing our students as best we possibly could for the challenges they would be facing.


We began our discussions at the beginning of the year by each focusing on a couple of specific classes that we would ensure had a ‘mastery plenary’ as often as possible and that we would use as a group to compare to the rest of our students. However we quickly realised that this would leave those that were not picked at a huge disadvantage in terms of preparing them for their assessments so we decided it was important that all of our students (in years 7-10) were experiencing ‘mastery’ style lessons.

While we felt as a department it was vital that we started to look at Mastery this year for our students, I have also been interested in this style of teaching for a while. I have become more and more conscious since I began teaching that the mathematics we were delivering to our students wasn’t necessarily preparing them for the real world but for an exam that we could pretty much second guess in terms of what it would look like. Like most other mathematics teachers I have worked with, I felt the problem solving skills and fluency that we should be teaching our students was being lost and replaced with teaching students how to answer a seemingly random set of questions in order to pass exams and this meant that they did not have a deep understanding of the concepts they were being taught. In my opinion, Mathematics should be an exercise in problem solving, it should stretch a person’s mind to work in a way that no other subject does and this was being lost as result of the pressure which falls heavily upon teachers shoulders to hit target grades. The new mastery curriculum while daunting for maths teachers in the short term, I saw and still see, as an exciting and hugely beneficial thing in the long term for our future generation of Mathematicians. How exactly this would look in my classroom, how I could ensure I was preparing them to problem solve and enjoy mathematics, while at the same time preparing them to pass their exams in maths is something I was grateful to have the time to do while preparing this Action Research Project.


As a department there are several ways in which we have modified our teaching since working together as a learning focus group1.

Research into Mastery and how this affected our work

All member of the department undertook their own individual research into what mastery was and we the brought it together in our learning focus meetings. We found that the most important factor when teaching the mastery curriculum was that of fluency between topics. We decided after our reading that for our students, especially those that would be facing the foundation curriculum this was something that we were not currently doing successfully, building their resilience in mathematics was paramount.   If they were to be successful mathematicians we needed to instil some confidence in them that it is completely fine to get things wrong in mathematics.

We also discovered various ways in which other countries have approached the teaching of Mathematics. We looked at the potential impact adopting Eastern Asian styles of teaching would have on our students and decided that some time would need to be dedicated to our students ‘learning’ facts and methods in maths so they had access to them at all times when completing more open ended tasks. Things like learning times tables for our younger students is something we often presume the students know from primary school but this is often not the case and we spent some time with our weaker students actually learning things like this as home works or in class.

We discovered after conversations between the team that articulating mathematics is something that is important for our students in order to ‘master’ a topic and that again our current methods weren’t necessarily allowing enough opportunity for this skill to be developed. We have therefore spent much more time on questions where students have to prove answers and in my lessons I questions students in a slightly different way, emphasising the importance of clarity in their working, asking questions like “Are you sure about that? Prove it to me as your current working doesn’t convince me”. This form of questioning also forces my students to think more precisely about what they are writing and the way in which they are presenting their work.

We researched different methods that we could use every lesson that wouldn’t necessarily link directly to individual topics. For example, asking questions like:

“Where does this fit into what we did last week?”

“Can you show me another way to do that?”

“Is that the only way to do that question?”

Adapting Assessments

At the beginning of the year we were working from a scheme of work called ‘Kangaroo’. We have worked on this for the least 4 years as a faculty but with the new curriculum changes Kangaroo have also updated their aims and lesson objectives. We continued to follow this scheme of work but adapted our assessments to include mastery style questions that we found on the Kangaroo website as well as the AQA website (which is the GCSE board we will be following) at the end of each unit of work. This meant that our students now needed much more fluency between subject areas and we were working at dispelling the myth that ‘a Pythagoras question looks like this’, ‘an expanding brackets question looks like this’ etc. We were starting to force our students to think of Mathematics as a puzzle and that each individual topic was just one piece and that they would need all the pieces to answer these new style questions.

Over the last 3 years we have been developing our schemes of work to incorporate more and more ‘Nrich’ challenges (Nrich is a website created by Cambridge University which has open ended questions and what we now recognise as ‘Mastery challenges’). While we have informally taught Nrich lessons once a fortnight for the last few years, one member of the department has now formally added appropriate Nrich lessons to our schemes of work where they naturally fit into the subject areas we are teaching. The rationale behind this is that the students will get used to being ‘stuck’ (no Nrich challenge is a 5 minute problem with a yes or no answer – each one takes at least an hour and the students will become more and more familiar with getting themselves unstuck as part of the experience). One adaptation I made during these lessons during the year was to only allow students to ask 3 questions of me the teacher per Nrich lesson. This forced them to have to really think about whether they needed to ask the questions or whether they were actually being too teacher reliant.

While this year was very much an experimental year in terms of the best way to adopt ‘mastery’ in the classroom, one thing that we were keen to get right was our assessments. We felt it was essential that the assessments the students were doing to inform our data on their learning resembled closely what their final assessments would look like in order to make our data as accurate as possible. In some cases (especially in year 10) this has meant students’ progress data has taken a hit, however we felt preparation for the new mastery curriculum was paramount. This also meant that we could build resilience, not just in the classroom when we are teaching and when they have the luxury of checking their answers and ideas with their peers and teacher but when the students needed to transfer this to the exam hall and feel as though they needed to at least attempt questions (especially the larger 6-8 mark questions which we have not seen before) without fear of getting them wrong.

Changing plenaries

In order to prepare our students for the new style curriculum we started to use plenary questions that paired more than one topic with that which was taught during the lesson. In the Appendix you will find two plenaries which show how mastery could be demonstrated once a topic has been covered.  There is also a full lesson which shows Levelled learning objectives and how we now must link subject content to other areas to secure ‘mastery’. Hopefully these will show how fluency between topics is now essential to completing most of my planned plenaries this year. While there was some resistance from students initially, the students do recognise the importance of doing this and have adapted accordingly.

Peer Observations

In order to help each other and compare our work, myself and another member of the faculty paired up to complete some peer observations. We used the time to discuss ideas and how the topics taught could be connected to other areas of maths.  This helped both of us to plan appropriate mastery style questions for the main bulk of the lessons and the plenaries. The joint planning that went into these lessons allowed us to think about the fluency between other areas and topics, as well as standardising the way we delivered our plenaries and most importantly, the different ways in which we were trying to build resilience in the subject.  As a faculty we plan to complete at least one peer observation per term to see how mastery is developing.

Impact and Conclusion

The impact our actions have had on the faculty will be felt in time. While there is no concrete evidence that can be shared in this document, I think that from my perspective, it has forced me to think about my practice and the fluency and links I make when teaching. My mathematics has certainly improved as a result of teaching the new curriculum, especially since I have a very able top set in year 10, who need to be challenged to reach their potential – the new assessments that we have even challenged me, which has been great!

While many students are still not comfortable with the new curriculum and style in which we now have to teach mathematics it is definitely improving, my students, especially the most able, are always very excited when they realise we are having an ‘Nrich lesson’ and now ask me at the start of lessons whether that is what we are doing today. This is an improvement on where we were at the start of the year since they didn’t tend to enjoy and therefore excel in these lessons because they were being pushed out of their comfort zone.

My key stage three classes have improved greatly in terms of their resilience and are now much more able to access mastery plenary questions that I give them to practice. At the beginning of the year many, especially my least able in year 7 and 8 would simply freeze when they were confronted with a questions that didn’t directly relate to the subject we had been focused on during the lesson. It is a gradual process but it is certainly a picture that is improving.

As I have mentioned above, the first mock our year 10 students took in June did not necessarily show strong progress, however in terms of my class, their reaction certainly showed maturity and resilience which is what this new curriculum requires our students to show. They worked solidly on their mock papers once they had been marked to understand as many questions as possible. Since they now understand the importance of keeping going – they are keen to do so.

Next Steps

Continuing our work on mastery is essential if we are to mould students to being successful not just in maths but in terms of their resilience to tackle problems and overcome their fear of getting things wrong. It is important that our work continues over the next few years and that any new team member understands why this is so important. Next year we will continue developing our lesson plans and assessments.  We will continue to work on Nrich challenges with our students and the peer observations that myself and another colleague completed will be rolled out to all members of the faculty. The standardisation of our lessons is important so that our students recognise that when they come to the maths corridor they will be challenged and need to have access to all areas of maths, not just those that they have been taught in the last 45 minutes.

This project is certainly an ongoing piece of work that we need to build on over the next few years. Our students will certainly become more comfortable with the mastery curriculum as we move forward, especially as this year Key Stage 1 & 2 have also been introduced to the new ‘mastery curriculum’ at their level, which should mean students are being moulded to move more freely between topics and solve problems independently. I look forward to seeing how our students develop as our teaching styles become more accustomed to the new curriculum.


  1. Learning Focus Groups – For professional development purposes staff work in small groups who share a common interest in developing an aspect of their teaching practice. These groups provide a forum for discussion, support, sharing and joint activities to help each teacher develop their own individual Action Research project.


Plenary 1



Plenary 2



Full lesson














Department for Education (DfE). (2013a). National Curriculum in England: Framework Document. London: Department for Education.

Kilpatrick, J. Swafford, J. & Findell, B.(eds.)(2001). Adding it up: Helping children learn mathematics. Mathematics Learning Study Committee: National Research Council.

NCETM (2014a). Developing Mastery in Mathematics. [Online] Available from: [Accessed: 28th September 2015]

NCETM (2014b). Video material to support the implementation of the National Curriculum. Available from: [Accessed 28th September 2015]

NCETM (2015). National Curriculum Assessment Materials. [Online] Available from: [Accessed 28th September 2015]

Ofsted  (2015) Better Mathematics Conference Keynote Spring 2015. Paper presented at the Better Mathematics Conference, Norwich, Norfolk.

Developing Mastery in Mathematics (1)

(Featured image: ‘Multiplication sentence written in multiples of three’

Mastery in Maths: Research and lesson adaptation to fit the new criteria in Maths

An Action Research project by Clare Mondair


The aim of this investigation was to explore aspects of Mastery in Maths to improve my own understanding of what Mastery actually means and what it would mean for the students in my lessons. In addition, my aim was to change my own teaching where necessary in order to best help the students in my classes achieve of their best. As a Faculty we aimed to work together to develop lessons that would contain a ‘Mastery’ element as well as developing resources to add to the new Scheme of Work which was quite thin on the kind of Mastery resources required.

Literature Review

Although there are many differences between the education systems in England and Eastern Asia, the ‘mastery’ approach to teaching commonly followed in these countries can teach us much.

According to the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics. (October 2014), the main principles and features characterised by this approach are that:

  • Teachers reinforce an expectation that all pupils are capable of achieving high standards in mathematics.
  • The large majority of pupils progress through the curriculum content at the same pace.
  • Differentiation is achieved by emphasising deep knowledge and through individual support and intervention.
  • Teaching is underpinned by methodical curriculum design and supported by carefully crafted lessons and resources to foster deep conceptual and procedural knowledge.
  • Practice and consolidation play a central role. Carefully designed variation within this builds fluency and understanding of underlying mathematical concepts in tandem.
  • Teachers use precise questioning in class to test conceptual and procedural knowledge, and assess pupils regularly to identify those requiring intervention so that all pupils keep up.

The intention of these approaches is to provide all children with full access to the curriculum, enabling them to achieve confidence and competence – ‘mastery’ – in mathematics, rather than many failing to develop the maths skills they need for the future. In addition, it has been recognised that for many schools and teachers the shift to this ‘mastery curriculum’ will be a significant one requiring new approaches to lesson design, teaching, use of resources and support of students. It also focuses on giving students the skills they need to make sensible choices and to use their knowledge to tackle problems in all sorts of situations. It also aims to develop their resilience for when the road gets tough.

There is a real need for a balanced approach here.  Of course having key facts at your disposal is very helpful when it comes to solving problems, especially when in an unfamiliar context but the need to be flexible and adaptable is too. Also helpful is being able to use what you do know to get you facts you don’t know.  For some students when learning their tables it can take a while to get 11 x 12 to “stick”, but if they are confident with 10 x 12 = 120 then they know how to get to the answer pretty quickly by adding on another 12.  Therefore, it is their understanding of the structure and not just my knowledge of the facts that helps out in tables tests. This is what sets students out on the road to mastery of the times tables!

Mastery of the Mathematics curriculum encourages ‘intelligent practice’ to enable students to develop conceptual understanding alongside procedural fluency.  It is important to use multiple representations to support this understanding and to encourage students’ reasoning.  Students are also encouraged to solve problems from the very start of the curriculum journey, not seeing it as some ‘add on’ that can only be considered when all the facts are in place.  The challenge is developing these skills and understanding alongside mastering different aspects of the Mathematics curriculum.

Asking students to think of more than one way to answer a question not only forces them to think more laterally but it also allows discussion of methods of true ’mastery’. These types of tasks enable students to:

  • Develop mathematical language.
  • Articulate their reasoning.
  • Share ideas on approaches to problem solving.
  • Grow in confidence when discussing ideas.

The key to this success is strong peer support which must be built up over time. In addition a good pedagogic tool to use in mathematical problem solving is instead of finding one way to solve a problem find three ways. Working in pairs is key to problem solving tasks as students come up with different ways of starting and after establishing one solution they are able to share alternative ideas. A core value of ‘mastery’ is partnership, listening to each other and showing respect for different views and ideas. Allowing students to explain their thinking, asking for and giving support and encouraging feedback is very important to establish and maintain mastery of mathematics.

Research Methods

Having researched and established as a Faculty what ‘mastery’ actually meant in maths we had to think about the way in which it would be developed. An agreement was made that we had already been attempting to develop mastery in terms of problem solving over the last year but lessons were intermittent and often lost out on due to other factors of school life.

An agreement was made that we would continue to develop lessons as normal but that a majority of our lessons would now contain an aspect of mastery. Nrich lessons would continue but would be incorporated in to the new Scheme of Work where possible (Nrich is a website created by Cambridge University which has open ended questions and what we now recognise as ‘Mastery challenges’). In addition, teachers in the Faculty would make lessons that they had produced available for the whole team and we would observe mastery lessons being delivered so that we would have a good understanding of what it ‘looked’ like. This would enable consistency throughout the Faculty. Many lessons would contain the format below so the students would know that was Nrich.


The lesson would then progress through a series of steps so that there was enough challenge for everyone. Students were encouraged to work at their own level, however they were also encouraged to go for the higher level challenge where possible. This would result in those students who were less able working alongside those who already had a good ‘mastery’ of mathematics. The advantage of this system meant that students were working with and supporting peers and learning from one another in their language and at their own level.


The above would not apply to Year 11, but all other year groups should benefit from this thinking. It would of course be especially important for the Year 10 classes as they would be sitting a new exam which would call for resilience as well as thinking outside of the box in order to tackle some of the new material.

Main Findings

Asking students to think of more than one way to answer a question not only forces them to think more laterally but it also allows discussion of methods of true ’mastery’. These types of tasks enable students to:

  • Develop mathematical language.
  • Articulate their reasoning.
  • Share ideas on approaches to problem solving.
  • Grow in confidence when discussing ideas.

The key to this success is strong peer support which must be built up over time. In addition a good pedagogic tool to use in mathematical problem solving is instead of finding one way to solve a problem find three ways. Working in pairs is key to problem solving tasks as students come up with different ways of starting and after establishing one solution they are able to share alternative ideas. A core value of ‘mastery’ is partnership, listening to each other and showing respect for different views and ideas. Allowing students to explain their thinking, asking for and giving support and encouraging feedback is very important to establish and maintain mastery of mathematics.

Using Nrich we were able to appreciate that the current mastery approach encompasses two key aspects of mathematical learning, conceptual understanding and procedural fluency, which we agree are essential for nurturing young mathematicians. In addition there are five aspects of being able to be a Master at Maths, conceptual understanding; procedural fluency; strategic competence; adaptive reasoning and productive disposition (Kilpatrick, Stafford & Findell, 2001).

  • Much of the curriculum has been moved from higher levels to lower levels resulting in students now being expected to suddenly achieve at a much higher level than previously expected.
  • Many of our students do not have the basic mathematical fluency or reasoning skills in order to access much of the new curriculum.
  • Resilience in students is key in helping to ensure that students stay on track and improve.
  • Peer support and discussion is vital if students are to succeed in mastering some of the problem solving activities and questions which will come with the new curriculum.
  • Nrich allows students to explore Mathematics in a safe environment where they don’t feel threatened by their lack of basic knowledge.

Discussion and Conclusion

Mastery can only be developed over time and is unlikely to have much impact for the first two years of the new curriculum changes. The current difficulty we face is the fact that our Ks4 students have not been brought up with this habit of mastering Mathematics and it is therefore difficult to develop these skills and follow a Scheme of Work designed for a new exam which is already challenging to our average ability and less able students.

The mastery of Mathematics is however, being thoroughly embedded in the curriculum where possible for the Ks3 students and the impact of this should be felt when the current Year 9 group begin the GCSE course.

Mastery in Mathematics will enable students to articulate their ideas, build resilience, build mathematical fluency and think about problems from a different angle which in turn should have an impact on many aspects of life as well as Mathematics.


Drury, H. (2014) Mastering Mathematics. Oxford University Press, pp8.

Mathematics Learning Study Committee. Adding it up: Helping children learn mathematics. National Academies Press, 2001.

National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics. October 2014.

Williams, H. (2014) Approach, Research. Mathematics Mastery Acting Director of Primary.




Engaging Disaffected Learners (2)

(Featured image: ‘untitled’ by stupidmommy is licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Engaging Disaffected Learners

An Action Research Project by Hannah Gale


  • To develop my pedagogical understanding of the reasons behind disaffection, particularly in Year 10 boys.
  • To establish and broaden a range of strategies to re-engage disaffected learners.
  • To build resilience and inspire self-confidence in my students.


“…by GCSE, for achievement at grades A* to C in English, the gap [between boys and girls] is 14 percentage points” (National Literacy Trust).

So, why is this gap so big and what can cause boys to become disaffected learners in English in particular? Firstly, Changes to the examination system at GCSE, mean that students must sit examinations at the end of Year 11 in which they must recall and apply two years’ worth of learning. This is an overwhelming and stressful prospect for many students, who are immediately disengaged by their own assumption that they will fail at this challenge. This can be a huge cause of disaffection at the beginning of Year 10.

The English curriculum has also become more traditional, favouring more 19th century literature and classic British literature, which means that students are working with challenging texts and unfamiliar language. Some boys in particular find it difficult to understand the purpose of studying these texts, which can provoke disaffection, particularly given that English is a compulsory subject that students have not opted into. Indeed, Jim Smith suggests that one of the most effective ways to establish engagement is to give learning purpose and to show its relevance to students (2010).

In addition, GCSE assessment has become more rigorous; to achieve a Grade 5, students are expected to have a command of subject terminology and an ability to use a range of punctuation and sentence structures with accuracy and for specific effect. Those with weak literacy skills can therefore become disaffected to mask their difficulties.


The focus for this action research project has been disaffected boys in my Year 10 GCSE groups, with a view to achieving the following aims:

  • To increase engagement in lessons;
  • To promote a resilient and problem-solving attitude among my most disaffected learners;
  • To use the coaching style as a means of building relationships.  

I have focused on three learners in particular: Andrew, James and Peter.

Background Reading and Research

This project began after my first-hand experience of Coaching with my NQT mentor. In the education sector, coaching is a mentoring technique used in a 1:1 setting to enable a colleague to combat a problem or concern that they are facing. It involves the mentor giving no advice at all, but simply asking probing questions that encourage the mentee to take an independent approach to the problem and to discover their own solutions. This made me consider how the technique might be adapted for students, particularly those who are so disaffected that they lose a desire and/or ability to combat their difficulties. I know that I have very often defaulted to giving answers to my most disaffected learners, never considering that asking them the right questions could prompt them into helping themselves. As Carol Dweck, establishes, learning will happen when students start to ask “What can I learn from this? What will I do next time I’m in this situation?” (2015). Of course, it’s easy to go to a default ‘OK, I’ll explain it again or I’ll help you with that’. What we should be doing is encouraging students to elicit their own solutions and/or to at least pinpoint their own difficulties.

If my mentor could influence me to become more problem-solving and resilient in my approach to difficulties, could I establish that in my students too? I began by reading up on the coaching technique and reading Carol Dweck’s, ‘Growth Mindset’.

According to The MRT Group, these are the benefits of coaching upon an individual:

  • improvement in individual’s performance, targets and goals
  • increased openness to personal learning and development
  • increased ability to identify solutions to specific work-related issues
  • greater ownership and responsibility
  • development of self-awareness
  • improvement of specific skills or behaviour
  • greater clarity in roles and objectives
  • the opportunity to correct behaviour/performance difficulties  

Actions and Results

I tried two different strategies in order to meet my aims and explore a range of techniques to re-engage these students and promote resilience and confidence. Firstly, I used coaching style questioning within my Year 10 lessons. For example, during one lesson observation I combated one statement of disaffection (‘I always fail’), with ‘What could you do next time to help you succeed at this?’ which allowed the student to focus on the solution and not the problem.

In addition I trialled a 1:1 coaching conversation, to see what results this would glean. I chose Andrew for this individual study because I wanted to build a more supportive relationship with him in particular, as well as allow him to identify his own barriers to learning in English and elicit his own solutions for overcoming them.

I was astounded with the result: Andrew spoke eloquently and specifically about his difficulties and was able to arrive at his own solutions. Here are some snippets from our dialogue:

What can help you to be in the right frame of mind for learning?

‘It depends what kind of day I’ve had. If it’s been really boring and I’ve had to do loads of writing throughout the day, then I probably won’t be bothered to do English when I arrive.’

‘If I know I’m gonna be doing something creative where I can let my imagination go then I’ll want to do it.’

What helps you to learn best? (Andrew particularly dislikes analysing texts, which we do a lot of in English. When asked what might help him to engage in the task of analysing a poem, he said):

‘I find thinking of ideas hard, so I think I’d find it easier if you kind of gave me the answers and then I had to find where that was happening in the poem. I think I’d be pretty good at that actually.’  

After this conversation, I put into practice Andrew’s suggestions and saw a new determination in him across a number of English lessons. It is apparent that “self-awareness and confidence are internal processes essential to ongoing growth and development” (‘Why Coaching?’, Wales, 2002). Indeed, when Andrew believed he’d found the solution to his barrier to learning, he was so much more engaged and willing to overcome his difficulties. I believe that the Coaching process can empower disaffected students to take responsibility for their learning and realise that they can make a change.


Dweck, Carol (2015). ‘Growth Mindset’.

National Literacy Trust. ‘Boys’ Reading Commission’.

Wales, Suzy (2002). ‘Why Coaching?’

Smith, Jim (2010). ‘The Lazy Teacher’s Handbook’