11 Jan 2016

Students deserve a curriculum that adapts to their pace of learning

Students deserve a curriculum that adapts to their pace of learning

The National Curriculum for mathematics is set up to fail. Its core limitation lies not in the standards it sets, but in its rigid structure that forces every child to progress through content at the same pace. This one-size-fits-all approach defies much of what research and experience tell us about how students develop mathematically. As a result, our students are being robbed of the core skills they need to thrive in the twenty-first century.

Our curriculum is structured on an industrial model that organizes students into batches according to their age. As students progress through school year-to-year they are expected to cover a fixed amount of material. This model mistakenly assumes that the mathematical development of every child is consistent. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Maths is messy. It comprises rich and varied topic areas, each of which brings its own challenges. Studying maths can be a fickle process; it all makes sense one day and has you stumped the next. It is in this dynamic uncertainty that mathematicians find joy and wonder in the subject. But to force students through material they have not yet understood is futile.

Maths is also a hierarchical subject; ideas build on top of one another and unless students have mastered the foundations, they will needlessly struggle with higher-level content. For example, a child that has barely grasped the basic concept of fractions will be at a severe disadvantage when the class moves on to probability. Such experiences induce a vicious cycle of frustration, low achievement and fixed attitudes towards maths ability.

The failure lies not with students or teachers, or even content, but with a curriculum structure that expects all children to glide through material at a fixed pace.

It took me four years to complete my PhD in mathematics, which is typical. Yet over 90% of the work in my final thesis came about in a 4-month period towards the end. Up until then I stuttered, failed and everything in between. And then it started to click; the solutions fell into place, I got a bit of luck here and some divine inspiration there. I also had a supportive supervisor who exercised patience and welcomed my erratic pace of development. If he had expected me to deliver my thesis in equal chunks of productivity over the four years I would not have survived the first month.

And so it should be with our curriculum. It is right that we expect every child to master the standards set out in our curriculum by the age of 16. All students are capable of attaining a basic level of mastery.

We should not compromise on the destination, but to get there we need to rethink the journey.

Every child is unique and should be supported on an individualised learning journey that respects their pace of development through the curriculum.

The implications for teachers are profound. Teaching to the “average” student fails because only a handful of students are actually at that level. For the rest, a fixed lesson will either be too challenging or too easy. Maths is most rewarding when it is pitched at just the right level. Teachers need to differentiate lesson content to serve the individual needs of every child. It may mean basic remedial support for some, and deeper problem solving for others. And it will vary lesson-to-lesson as students continually develop and different topics tease out their diverse learning profiles.

Nobody said it would be easy but as educators flock to BETT they should be on the lookout for curriculum offerings that meet every child where they are. 

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