We all have a very limited attention: as you might be aware, children can’t think about many different things at once! So establishing routines that promote mathematical reasoning – routines that children become familiar with – will allow children’s attention to be focused on the key learning in the lesson. Thinking about these routines in advance can therefore be very important.
And so much better if these routines are consistent throughout the school. In Thinking Deeply About Primary Mathematics by Kieran Mackle, I loved Matt Swain’s routine for how children hold up their whiteboards. The children always hold their whiteboards to their chests; the teacher tells the children to put their boards down one table at a time. When children are familiar with routines like this, their attention isn’t wandering to ‘will Mr Swain see my answer?’ but is held on the content of the lesson.
Here are four routines that I think support learning in a primary maths classroom:
Pair work: short independent thinking slots
In pair work, I often ask children to start by working on a task individually before discussing with their partner. This promotes different methods/thought processes and lessens the risk of one partner becoming too dominant in a conversation. The length of time that I would expect children to work independently will increase as they get older, but it’s something I try to establish with all children. In most contexts, I’d have periods of silence when working independently – children find it more difficult to block out background noise than adults. I have found that these short periods of individual thinking make children value their collaboration time more.
Re-state the views of others
In group or whole class discussions, I generally try to spend longer drawing out the detailed thinking of a child or a small number of children. It’s important, though, that all children are actively thinking about what is being discussed. As a result, I routinely ask children to re-state the opinion of the person that has been speaking. This helps children to follow a conversation rather than just thinking about what they would like to say or to give their opinion. It also opens children up to different ways of thinking or different methods.
Doubt at the point of answer
I want children to focus on the process of their thinking and encourage them to reason. I don’t want children overly focused on whether answers are right or wrong. As a result, I tend to react with indifference when children give an answer. This gives children a reason to explain their thinking and it shows them that the thing I value is their thought process. Also, where a child has answered some questions and has made a few mistakes (but doesn’t hold a clear misconception) I often tell them how many questions they have got correctly/incorrect and ask them to find their mistakes. This gives the child more thinking to do than when the questions are marked and they simply correct their mistakes.
Consistency in question types
I like to have a consistent bank of question types, using common headings, throughout the maths curriculum. These common question types are woven throughout my I See Reasoning eBooks (this blog explains some of the Y3 & Y4 techniques and this blog explains about some of the Y5 & Y6 techniques). So when building understanding, children are used to being given an Explain the Mistakes task; they know that they will be asked to explain links between questions when answering Small Difference Questions and they have become used to working systematically when given a How Many Ways? challenge. By establishing these norms, we can focus more of the children’s attention to the maths content of the task, rather than having to explain how to approach each new technique. I hope the eBooks are super-useful for this!
I’m happy to host training events on Building Reasoning Routines and Building Problem-Solvers for the 2021-2022 school year and I’m working alongside teachers to implement these ideas in the classroom. Please get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in receiving support in these areas. I will also keep sharing new resources for people to trial for those people signed up to my mailing list.
Also, please share your favourite school or classroom routines, however big or small. How do they create a positive learning culture? How do they help to direct children’s limited attention in a productive way? I’d love to pick up and share new ideas!