Category Archives: STEM

“Mum wasn’t good at maths either, love…” Girls, Maths & Cooperative Learning

I am very honoured to be taking part in the Strategic School Improvement Fund project to raise progress in mathematics for KS2 girls in Norfolk

Followers of this blog will be aware of my ongoing work with Sheringham Primary School and Nursery. The teaching school based there, Norfolk’s largest, has made a successful bid for addressing the under-attainment in maths at Key Stage 2, specifically focusing on girls, which is a county-wide issue.

The relevance to the rest of the UK is clear when one bears in mind that girls present a relatively untapped source of talent to handle the growing shortage of digitally skilled workers. However, young women are grossly underrepresented in mathematics and other essential subjects for taking computer science at university. For years it has been recognised that this gender imbalance might be traced back to bottlenecks in school education.




Girls will be girls?

This unfortunate trend starts early on: There is a large gender gap between the progress of boys and girls in maths at KS2 and in Norfolk overall attainment for both boys and girls is already below the national average.

Maths standards in Norfolk

One of the first things that inspired me about the SSIF bid was that it looks beyond the “teaching the subject” to include such factors as the negative messages that many children, in particular girls, receive about maths. It is a prevalent myth in our society that you have a maths brain or not, which affects teachers, TAs, parents and ultimately children as schools do not operate in a vacuum.


Girls and Maths - no worries!

Getting the message?


The project therefore includes work to undo these negative messages with staff, children and parents. As these messages are almost subliminal, one of my areas of focus will be to use the dialogical/constructivist aspect of Cooperative Learning to unpick them and draw them into the light.

Another prevalent myth is that speed in calculation equates with being good at maths. This leads to maths classrooms being perceived as threatening because you are put on the spot to provide answers very quickly. Girls often will not flourish in this environment. Instead children need to make connections and learn facts conceptually to allow creative application in a range of situations. Above all we need to value depth over speed.

Such conceptual teaching needs to be coupled with messages about the brain and how it can grow, along with metacognitive strategies to increase independence and confidence when learning maths. We have discussed here on on numerous occasions the connections between metacognition and Cooperative Learning. As noted in the original bid outline: “Maths, even at the highest level, is a collaborative subject and children should be given well-structured opportunities to collaborate effectively.” Cooperative Learning secures this.

Once all the above elements are in place all children can flourish in maths classrooms, the progress of girls will rise to match the boys and all will attain at higher levels, not least due to the mutual benefit to all participants secured by Cooperative Learning. As Mr McConnell of George White Junior School notes, “This is what inclusion looks like.”

John McConnell video still.PNG

Mr McConnell video interview on his experiences with Cooperative Learning.

The project in a nutshell

This project comprises several components, which have been introduced to 30 schools through CPD sessions and are to be supported for the duration of the project by designated Specialist Leaders in Education (SLEs) who are training and guiding two Project Leads (PLs) within each school.

These CPD components comprise:

  • Meta-cognition by Anne Stokes and Robert Brewster from Sheringham Primary National Teaching School Alliance (SPNTSA).
  • Maths mindsets of staff, parents, children, including maths learning cafes delivered by SPNTSA and A2E2 Education
  • Conceptual Teaching in Maths, including CPA, number sense and aims of the National Curriculum, delivered by Educator Solutions.


SSIF training maths kit A
Some materials from Educators Solutions’ training day for SLEs, November 2017


The objective of my own upcoming training is to fuse all this previous input into a simple, sustainable classroom practice, tailored to each school, yet consistent enough to be accurately assessed, shared and supported.

Sustainability, a crucial requirement to receive SSI funding, is precisely being ensured by Project Leads being trained to deliver and embed packages of CPD, rather than external consulting. This means one of my most interesting challenges is to train by proxy – to train the Project Leads to not only deliver Cooperative Learning CPD packages, but to empower each of them to the point they will be able to support and guide their colleagues in the long term without oversight from me or SLEs.

It is worth noting that Cooperative Learning is not the actual objective of the training – the objective is that Cooperative Learning secures the three components above in every classroom.

Therefore, the acid test when SLEs come to assess impact of my training will be whether they actually see metacognition, CPA, etc. – rather than the quality of Cooperative Learning in its own right: A core message to PLs in the upcoming training is that one may stage an excellent Cooperative Learning activity that has absolutely nothing to do with the objectives one is supposed to be teaching, in the same way as a doctor may find the right vein, but inject the wrong medicine.

Cooperative Learning and Maths

So, is Cooperative Learning relevant to maths? The answer to this has several aspects.

Number one, maths is much more than knowing your times tables. Real maths requires high-level thinking and understanding of ever more complex concepts as you move up through keystages. The best way to avoid getting lost in this complexity is peer-to-peer negotiation of meanings, ideas, where pupils (and teachers) can check and recheck their comprehension.

Number two, Cooperative Learning should never be confused with disorganised group work. It is a precision tool that allows repetitive tasks resolution in a highly engaging manner. Much of the maths curriculum is comprised of what we would term procedural skills: how do you convert fractions to decimals? What’s the bus stop method? Cooperative learning allows a very effective learning of these core skills sets.

Number three, maths requires that certain things are simply known. A good example is multiplication tables, definitions and terms such as enumerator and denominator, and specific values, such as Pi. Cooperative Learning is equally good at drilling what are essentially non-negotiable closed questions, and get a great deal more out of them than would be expected.

During my training for MUA Consultancy, one of the UK’s leading specialists in Singapore Maths, maths leads have pointed it out time and time again how Cooperative Learning strengthens maths, even such specific systems as MathsNoProblem.

Cooperative Learning is a truly vast and largely unexplored resource to solve the multivarious challenges faced by STEM, something I have touched on in articles on Mrs Mary Whitehouse and my recent presentation at the ASE Conference on oracy with Naomi Hennah. And I still owe Ron and Richard of recognition for their inspiring day on the interpretive range of Maths vocabulary and other issues at the IoE last Summer – you are not forgotten!


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ASE London #1: Out of the Question …

It was a pleasure to attend yesterday’s Association of Science Education’s London and Essex Summer Conference “Supporting Learning for all in Science” at the Institute of Education, London. For someone like me, whose method deliberately targets achievement gaps, the title alone made coming irresistible.

A special thank you to Sheila of ASE, who virtually singlehandedly made it all happen, and to everyone who took interest in my impromptu stall. You should now all have received a welcome mail to COGS.

Due to the content void nature of Cooperative Learning, though specific examples here are taken straight from STEM KS3+, the theory connecting CL with questioning techniques, and the cooperative activities themselves, benefit equally in any subject and key stage. You will also discover what a milk float is.

Questions in Context

I know Dr Lyn Hayes, who invited me to the conference, from our work with the INSPIRE STEM PGCE training programme at Imperial College in January. I have previously explored the relationship between Cooperative Learning and STEM with Ben Rogers at the 2016 Annual ASE Conference at Birmingham University, where we presented the course Great Reading, Great Learning, and lately with Math leads in Leicester for SDSA, where the enhancement of Singapore Maths through Cooperative Learning was made very clear by delegates themselves. (More information here).

At yesterday’s conference, I prioritised  “Developing good questions for STEM learning” with Mary Whitehouse of University of York Science Education Group and “The Language of Mathematics in Science” with Richard Boohan & Roni Malek. The regular reader of this blog will recognise the obvious connection to my planned work with Mrs Hennah on oracy skills in science.

My final top choice was unfortunately cancelled; as I am involved in a Strategic Funding Bid to close gender gaps in Maths, another of my top workshop choices from the programme was “Improving Gender Balance” with Nicky Thomas from the Institute of Physics. Hopefully next time?


Cooperative Learning & Questions

Mary Whitehouse (@MaryUYSEG)  opened her keynote with the seemingly ubiquitous reference to Hattie’s research on effect size, recapping the impact of assessment (0.46), spaced practice (0.71) and feedback to the teacher (0.73) – all of which, as followers of this blog will know, are integral (assessment and feedback) or easily facilitated (spaced practice) by Cooperative Learning.


Specifically, I was very happy with her quote from Hattie: “Structuring class sessions to entice, teach and listen to students asking questions to students is very powerful.” If that is not a description of Cooperative Learning and three of its main outcomes,  it’s not Cooperative Learning. I will attempt to exemplify in the following commentary on Whitehouse’s workshop.

Why asking the right questions is crucial should hopefully be something all teachers are aware of; what is less obvious perhaps is the support Cooperative Learning offers in situations where questions are poor or just plain intermediate in quality – which may well be the majority of questions in the average lessons.

First of all, if you cannot have quality, you can always have quantity. The simultaneous engagement with your questions by every single pupil in the classroom, and the stacking afforded by such basic Cooperative Learning Interaction Patterns as Think-Pair-Share (discussed below), means any ‘less good’ question will be dressed up in peer-to-peer feedback and support and automatic differentiation through negotiation. (Who knows, you might get lucky and get the metacognitive comment “I think this question is stupid, because…”).

Also, since every single pupil is presenting their understanding, the assessment element is very strong. So, while the poor question posited might only have half the effect of a good question in the same cooperative activity, it still has a substantially higher impact than that question asked from the board and discussed with a lower ability pupil who is off on a tangent, while the rest of the class of 32 pupils nod off (Dare we say 3100% higher impact, mathematicians?).

Vice versa, good questions enhance Cooperative Learning dramatically. Because Cooperative Learning is nothing but a precise, surgical delivery tool for your input, the more powerful the input, the more powerful the impact. And, again, assessment is improved in correspondence with the quality of the questions asked.

So, with no further ado, onto Mary Whitehouse’s presentation  “Developing good questions for STEM learning”.



Mary and the Word

There are many benefits to making up questions, not least the fact that it forces teachers to think about which outcome they want and helps crystallise it. Specifically, Mary pointed out that looking closely at which answers your question might elicit is a good measure of the quality of your question in reference to you learning objective.

As we mentioned in the last of the articles on Stalham Academy, you can stage and execute a perfect cooperative activity which has absolutely no value to the objectives of the lesson. One of the ways this can happen is precisely the question you pick for the Cooperative Learning Interaction Pattern, whether it be a Think-Pair-Share or Boss & Secretary. It is akin to a doctor who performs his surgery perfectly but on the wrong organ.

Among the things one should also be wary of when writing questions is whether any additional context is needed. Mary had some of us chuckling when she gave the example of pupils with a Chinese background responding to an exam question starting with the words “The batteries in the milk float are…” I chuckled somewhat less than others, as I , poor foreigner that I am, didn’t know what a milk float is. (She suggested trying “electric car” instead).

Milk float

Milk float courtesy of

Finally, and especially in the case of multiple choice questions, ask yourself if pupils could get the correct answer for the wrong reason – such as luck or misunderstanding?


The good multiple choice question 

As Mary pointed out, understanding the purpose of your question is the key to success. For example, “diagnostic questions” test pupils’ understanding to better guide teaching. If a Y7 teacher automatically assumes her new pupils can distinguish “force” and “energy” a whole world of mess opens up. Multiple-choice is a very simple, and easily assessable, way of checking precise understanding of concepts (We have already discussed closed vs open questions).

Mary Whitehoude, diagnostic questions

Here, Mary demonstrated an alternative, collaborative, way to present multiple-choice questions which really struck a chord with me. One of the main reasons Cooperative Learning yields 5 to 8 months of additional progress per pupil per year is the feedback element: Opening discussions between pupils give teachers insight into the thinking process that produces the wrong answers.  As any teacher will be aware, there is often a weird logic behind pupils’ misconceptions that need to be recognised before it can be challenged appropriately. An unfortunate example is found in the next instalment of this when we get to “Confidence Grids.”

The following item was developed to show how GCSE exam questions can be converted into diagnostic questions: The words in the speech bubbles are based on information from the OCR GCSE mark scheme and the examiner’s report:

The question is: “How can very high temperature lead to death?”

How can a very high temperature lead to death

By referring to the examiner’s report, you are sure the wrong answers are common misconceptions that you need to weed out.


Getting more out of it with Cooperative Learning

Now, it is entirely possible to present this task on individual pieces of paper, give them a couple of minutes to think and tick the ones they agree with and collect the evidence, but Mary’s point was obviously that one should use this in group work.

However, there is group work and there is Cooperative Learning. Group work risks loss of accountability, equal participation, off-task behaviour, etc. as discussed in multiple previous posts.

Therefore, in the following, I want to demonstrate the benefit of dropping this IWB task into a tightly timed Think-Pair-Share (e.g. one minute to Think, two minutes to Pair and three minutes to Share)With an enforced written element delineated at each stage in the form of “I/my partner and I/our team think X is correct/incorrect, because…”, you achieve the following:

  • get each student to capture their baseline understanding in writing.
  • get each student to practice writing a concise argument, and orally presenting it.
  • promote and train a scientific mindset.
  • acquire written evidence of each student’s specific misconceptions of ideas as well as concepts.
  • ascertain fluency (e.g. high level pupils will produce multiple answers and less capable pupils perhaps only one or two).
  • save plenary feedback time by letting pupils correct some of their wilder misconceptions with their peers.
  • check and improve the precision of subject vocabulary and general language.
  • get written and oral evidence of misconceptions and their corrections as pairs negotiate their individual findings.
  • acquire profound insight into the reasons for any misconceptions by unobtrusively monitoring discussions, securing effective, targeted next steps.
  • get written evidence of self-confidence: which pupils can stand their ground in an argument and who folds, even if he is right. (This needs to be dealt with as it is a matter of too much or too little self-confidence in the pair, both of which impact negatively on personal relationships – think PSHE for which every teacher should feel responsible – and scuttle calm analytical thinking required in science).
  • Get an on-the-spot written summary of each group’s understanding as the final Sharing stage will be the result of combined thinking and debating in each group.
  • feed back this data straight into the current lesson, because eight groups in a standard size class of 32 reduce the amount of data you need to process by a factor of four.
  • avoid marking
  • instilled confidence and team cohesion, as any plenary responses from individual pupils will represent a group effort, saving much humiliation (and recognising the value of collaboration which is indispensable given the complexity of modern science).
  • save time on plenary feedback, as you already know where the trouble spots are.
  • and a whole lot of other things, including automatic differentiation, positive peer pressure, social skills, language acquisition, etc., etc., etc. But that’s just basic Cooperative Learning for you.

And as Mary pointed out, student work is a great resource to acquire further inspiration for questions.

(For schools who have been through my CPD: We have discussed the cons and pros of Think-Pair-Share vs Meet-in-the-Middle. Both could be used here, but the benefit of that extra layer the pair element gives  before they come together I think is a case for TPS. Again, you know you objectives, students and materials best. Cooperative Learning must never be a straitjacket).

Disclaimer: This articles represents my own limited understanding of Mary Whitehouse’s workshop, and does not claim to include all elements or accurately reflect her presentation.


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