Maths, Inquiry, Maths Programs and Finding Your Way Forward

Maths and the IB PYP do not always feel like they are comfortable partners. It’s an uncomfortable truth to read and acknowledge, and yet, speak to any number of PYP teachers across the world and you’ll find that finding a way to be student led, inquiry based, and yet confident you are equipping every child in your class with the mastery of maths they will need is a very real challenge.

From here a common debate springs up; do we pick up a maths program?

Even me writing this post will be irritating for those who feel that maths should be driven by the Units of Inquiry and student inquiries. For some the prospect of a prescribed maths program is not something they can even contemplate. I’m happy for those teachers that they have the confidence to do it themselves, and wish them all best! In time, we hopefully raise a new generation of mathematicians who feel similar. However, this post isn’t really for those teachers. It’s for the teachers, coordinators, schools, and communities who are wrestling with this challenge;

How do we remain true to our values and pedagogy, and yet be sure that we are equipping all our students to be both inquirers capable of using maths to pursue understanding, and learners capable of understanding maths to pursue their inquiries?

In my school I’m a little lucky here. As part of a group of schools a decision was taken the year before I joined that only teaching the maths which came up during UOIs was hard for teachers, inconsistent for children, and hard to track/support. They went through the long, and often agonising, process of choosing a program (funnily, I was doing the same thing at the same time, but in another school). I arrived around a year after a program had been decided and as we were just beginning to explore it’s implementation.

There are some in the IB teaching community who will tell you not to adopt or adapt a program, my belief is that you have to do what works best for the community and children you serve.  You know your context, your teachers, your turnover rates, your students, your resources, your community knowledge, what other challenges you may be working on, etc. It’s a bit like being a first time parent, listen to all the advice, be open to ideas and suggestions – but trust yourself to know your situation the best and follow that which works for you.

Below I’m going to walk through some of our successes, challenges and critically, adaptations. I purposefully haven’t named which program we use, because that’s not really the point here, however I will note that our program is inquiry led and based on the Singapore Maths approach.

Early Successes (within 2 years)

·       All classes now work through all of the standards expected according to their ages/phases (whichever you are using)

·       Teacher planning time for maths is both drastically reduced, and targeted to improving the student learning experience rather than basic resource creation

·       We’re using better quality resources

·       Consistent strategies are being used through the school which is deepening understanding

·       Student knowledge is building year on year and can be seen in data, conversations with students, and application/transfer to projects and inquiries

·       Our maths learning is grounded in research and up-to-date pedagogy

·       When there is maths application in units we are consolidated our learning even further by transferring it – this has led to deeper inquiries and better quality use of data handling, statistics, measurement, etc. in units

Early Challenges

·       Adapting to change – our team are very courageous and open-minded. We talked openly about fears when adopting and implementing the program; but we all committed to following it completely so we’d understand it thoroughly. This was a challenge sometimes, but critical to our success – buy in was key.

·       The newer strategies required lots of professional development, practice, and exploration for our teachers – we’ve still got work to do, but we’ve come a long way and you can see it

·       This is true for families too, some strategies such as bar modelling are completely new to parents and that was painful during covid when families needed to support their learners at home

·       Timing – we’ve had to make time to make this work – be prepared to change schedules (possibly a couple of times as you learn what works)

·       Redefining success in maths – by adopting an inquiry program our teachers facilitate maths learning between students. It’s great to see and highly effective, but if you’ve been teaching maths for a while it can be difficult to adapt to.

Find Our Way Forward

After the first couple of years we got a good feel for the program. We mapped out successes and struggles using visible thinking routines and kept open dialogue about how it was going. Then we noticed 2 stumbling blocks that we needed to challenge;

1. Workbooks

With almost any bought maths program there are workbooks or student books or something that is essentially worksheets stuck together. I get it, publishers need to make the program profitable and they make a very visible way of showing all the learning. However, it became noticeable that our resources were starting to drive our pedagogy instead of support it.

What did we do?

Firstly, we talked openly about it. There’s no mystery to what I do as a coordinator, it’s not some hidden super power I have. To highlight this for my team I projected a series of belief statements around maths and used a Likert scale and whiteboards to rate whether we agreed or disagreed. You can see the statements below;

What this helped us to visualise was that we shared the same beliefs and values about our approach to learning in maths. So why were we completing workbook pages if we didn’t believe it was best for learning?

The truth is, teachers were usually good students at school and good students always finish the work, right? There were questions to answer and boxes to fill, so the desire to complete it took over and we did it even against our own beliefs. We shared a few moments of surprise, rueful smiles, and slight embarrassment at the realisation before asking ourselves the big question ‘so what do we do differently’?  

I challenged our team to take lessons from 2 weeks ahead of where they are now (actually, I also mixed up grade level teams to give new perspectives too), and use 1 of these 3 strategies;

Replace – find the worksheet that follows the inquiry based lesson and replace it with a game, a provocation to inquiry, or an invitation to play

Reinforce – design a real-world application of the learning, again with a focus on inquiry and play, that would reinforce a skill and allow for the much needed practice and transfer the worksheet is trying (but in our view failing) to provide for students

Recap – find ways to use play to recap either skills/strategies taught a month ago to maintain mastery, or those done in the previous grade to activate prior learning ahead of a unit

We had a lot of fun designing ways to replace workbooks that matched our beliefs around high quality teaching and learning! Taking time to share them with each other and give some feedback/steal ideas was powerful for us all.

2. Assessment

After sharing, I asked the team to write down what learning/skills/strategies/understanding they would see in the activity. Did it meet the objectives for the lesson? Was there anything they wouldn’t see, but need to in order to know the student mastered it?

This really highlighted the power of play! Because it became very clear that these ‘fun’ activities would in fact show us an awful lot (my KG team were looking very pleased with themselves here as they knew that from the start).

So we asked ‘How would you evidence this?’

Here were some ideas;

·       Observe students as they play

·       Record videos

·       Take photos

·       Play with the students

·       Make time for reflections afterwards

·       Have a data book/sheet with the standards to record mastery in real time

Consolidating Our Approach

We ended by coming back together and writing a joint statement about how we would approach maths. This really allowed us to circle back to those crucial beliefs and values. We were no longer being driven by our chosen program, instead it is back to supporting our teachers and students. It gives us a solid foundation in numeracy for all learners. It empowers our learners to co-construct understanding. It empowers our teachers by giving them the confidence to plan ‘fun’ replacements for workbooks, meaningful inquiries, and yet know that they’re meeting the needs of all.

My Approach

You’ll notice all of this sounds like it was a discussion. And it was.

As coordinator, I knew I wanted the team to use the resources to support not drive pedagogy. I spend as much time as I can in classrooms and had talked it through with my leadership team (2 of whom are teachers too). I knew we needed to include more play based learning in all grades. I really hoped we’d move to continuous assessment. I could have sent an email telling everyone to do it. It might have worked.

But it wouldn’t be anchored in sense of learning community and shared values, it wouldn’t develop the thinking of my team, and it wouldn’t have allowed us to inquire and explore ideas together. My job is to lead, not manage. So it was a discussion, an inquiry, and a shared learning journey – because that’s what we value.

Hopefully, if you’ve read this far this inspired you as a teacher or coordinator to make your program work for you, to advocate for the needs of your community, or just got you to think about your own approach and how it’s working for you. 

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