It seems a perfect opportunity to start my first ever blog by congratulating St Stephen’s Primary, Coatbridge in North Lanarkshire for their fantastic and hard-earned achievement in receiving the Scottish Education Award as overall winner for raising attainment in numeracy. This was no overnight success and perhaps it is worth reflecting on some of the key factors that contributed to this. The most important outcome, and the purpose for this work, was the effect on children’s engagement and achievement. The award is a recognition of this.

At the award ceremony, prior to learning that they were the overall winner for the numeracy category, Martine Watt HT and staff at St Stephen’s were asked about the resources required for their new pedagogical approach. Martine explained that it didn’t involve resources, it was about developing teachers’ knowledge, specifically teachers’ knowledge of children’s mathematical thinking and how to use that knowledge to inform teaching. She described this knowledge as ‘transformational’.

Having worked with St Stephen’s Primary over the last three years, two of which involved their participation in a collaborative research project funded through Scottish Attainment Challenge and Pupil Equity Funding (the final report is available here ), I can outline some of the factors evident from the project and which to date, from the continuation of work with the schools, present as significant in leading to the kind of transformational change to which Martine referred. These are:
– Collaboration
– A focus on teachers’ knowledge and its application for teaching
– Professional development with teacher learning embedded in classroom practice
– Leadership and a whole school approach
– Inclusive practice
– Time

Perhaps I can elaborate on these more fully in future posts, but for now I’ll comment briefly on each of these elements.

This has been an essential part of the work. St Stephen’s do not work alone, they have worked in close collaboration with other schools but in particular with Hareleeshill Primary School in South Lanarkshire Council. Collaboration took place within the schools through Lesson Study and school-based co-ordinators, across Local Authorities and continues as we scale up this work through extending the model to other schools in other Local Authorities. The development process itself was collaborative with support and expertise from the CGI community in the US and in particular from Prof Cheryl Lubinksi, Prof Al Otto and Dr Jim Brickwedde and in the UK, Prof Effie Maclellan.

We focused on supporting teachers’ knowledge of children’s mathematical thinking and how this could be used to inform teaching. Focusing on knowledge rather than resources or more technicist approaches to teaching empowers teachers whilst recognizing their existing pedagogical skills and creativity.

Supporting teachers’ learning
Teachers learned important ideas about children’s mathematical thinking and development and specifically research-based frameworks about problem types and solution strategies. This content was covered in workshops but most importantly it was supported in practice in classrooms through a collaborative process often involving Lesson Study. The value of this embedded approach was highlighted by teachers as was the importance of the guidance of more experienced practitioners. This classroom-based support focused discussions on specific events relating to children’s understandings often in real time. Teachers described this embedded approach as having the most significant impact on their practice.

Leadership and a whole school approach
The involvement and support of the senior leadership team in promoting a whole school approach was crucial. Without a strategic plan of how this work could be developed and maintained any notions of sustainability would be futile. Developing school-based co-ordinators to support a whole-school approach was a key part of this strategy.

Inclusive practice
At no time have we ever talked with the teachers about inclusion at an abstract level in relation to policy and ideology. Instead we focused on classroom practice which supports the participation of all learners. What we are seeing is an abandonment of ability grouping and recognition that teaching can be structured in ways that support the participation of everybody and to the advantage of all. Teachers are responding dynamically to the needs of individual children because they have a clear picture of their mathematical understanding. We are also seeing a highly creative response by teachers to particular children who might historically have been described as ‘difficult to teach’. I have yet to encounter a child for whom sense-making is not a realistic expectation.

Schools like St Stephen’s Primary and Hareleeshill Primary have taken a strategic approach recognizing that this kind of change takes time – years not weeks or months. The transformation described by Martine Watt involves a pedagogical shift rather than simply mapping new ideas onto existing practice. The schools worked hard to build capacity and sustainability through depth of knowledge rather than an approach which might be described as a mile wide and an inch deep.