A teacher said to me:

“When I see a page of 50 neat answers and 50 red ticks I see proof of a poor maths lesson. I see lack of challenge and wasted opportunity”.

There were three things about this teacher which gave her remarks special weight.

She was a Head.

She was an Inspector.

All her work was in the independent sector.

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Now you’re welcome to feel Dorothy may have been overstating her case, but the fact remains that if she didn’t carry her parents with her, she and her colleagues wouldn’t have any pupils and all of them would have been out of work. Certainly I found her words stayed with me. If you can do one question then why should you do dozens of similar ones? Surely, Dorothy says, you should move onto something a bit more challenging.

It took me a while but I came to see why Dorothy saw neatness as a warning flag. I like to think I give children mathematics which challenges them, which is within their grasp but requires them to stretch a bit. Both their initial thinking and their initial recording may be a bit rough – when you’re working at something that really makes you think then you simply don’t have the time or the spare resources to make sure your work looks nice.

It’s true for teachers themselves. I’ll ask teachers to work on a problem for a while and after we’ve discussed it, I’ll ask how many gold stars they’d give their partner for neatness. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no need for embarrassment, because their entire focus has been on solving the problem rather than what their work looks like. In my One-To-One work the book we work in is mine, not the pupil’s, so there’s no temptation for them to feel guilty because it’s full of scruffy working.

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