• Article

No need to differentiate in primary school maths lessons

Debbie Morgan explains why all children should be included in all aspects of a primary maths lesson

No need to differentiate in primary school maths lessons
  • Published: 13/06/2022

In this Q&A, Debbie Morgan, NCETM Director for Primary, says that good teaching for mastery is now removing the need for differentiation in primary school maths teaching. She argues that teacher planning time is better-spent on designing lessons that the whole class can access. She urges teachers not to think of groups of children in terms of prior attainment.

If teaching for mastery involves whole-class teaching, should there be any differentiation within that?

It depends what we mean by differentiation. Differentiation used to mean - and often still does - planning activities for at least three different groups of children, identified by perceived ‘ability’ (which usually means prior attainment*). Most teachers who are teaching for mastery are no longer doing this.

However, a more subtle differentiation is still going on. Although teachers are mostly teaching to the whole class, they are still thinking about different groups of children within their class and subtly planning for different levels of questioning, different follow-up tasks, or some additional questions ‘just for those that are at the top of my class, who need that bit of extra stretch’.

But, I think we have got to the point where we need to stop thinking about individual groups of children, we need to be planning lessons that are accessible to all children. Let the primary thought not be ‘What can I do for my lower, middle and higher attainers?’ but ‘How can I teach this concept in such a way that all children will get it?’ I think we are ready for that shift as we move forward with teaching for mastery.

What about those who grasp ideas more quickly? In the classrooms where you are seeing teaching for mastery working, what is stopping those children from getting bored?

I think the word ‘bored’ is often over-used. Because teaching for mastery is very much concept-based, children are encouraged to think deeply about a concept and make connections. Where it’s working well, I’ve never heard a child say they are bored, because the concepts are really fascinating and they want to know more. The style of teaching is also helpful, in that children are experiencing their understanding growing from lesson to lesson: children are looking forward to the next lesson because there’s a new connection to be made.

Whether it’s easy or not is irrelevant. Where teaching for mastery is working well, children often do find it easy but that’s not to say it’s boring – they find it easy because they understand it and have made connections, and that’s good for their self-esteem. I think we’ve got a bit of a culture in this country that unless children find it hard, they are not learning. We need to move away from that. Effective learning is enjoyable!

Is there a confusion between ‘greater depth’ as a description of how deep the maths goes, and ‘Greater Depth’ as an attainment level to assess children against?

In classes where I have seen teaching for mastery working well, then all children get to what I would call ‘greater depth’. What we should mean by ‘greater depth’ is that they’ve got a really secure understanding of the structures of the mathematics within that concept, so fluency and problem-solving capability are developing alongside. The teacher should be aiming for this with ALL children – some children shouldn’t be given second best and not access that. There’s nothing else that any child needs than to get to the fundamentals of the concept, be able to connect and become fluent with it.

Some might argue that we should be responding to children’s needs - which we absolutely should. So if we identify that a child isn’t getting it in class, we respond to that. We might put in a small in-class intervention – but that approach is for all children. If you’ve spotted a child who isn’t getting it, there’s probably a few others too, so we’ll ALL talk about it and ALL think about it together. We’re not just railroading through with a script – we are very definitely looking for children not getting it and responding to that.

So are you describing more of a learning community where children take a part of the responsibility for each other’s learning?

Yes, by children being questioned and challenged on their initial understanding - that’s good for everyone. You might get some better responses from some children, but everyone is hearing those responses, and the likelihood is that they aren’t always from the same children. It’s important for all children to feel part of that learning community, without being labelled. Children know what their teacher expects of them – they know if they are in the ‘bottom group’, even if there isn’t actually a bottom group! If the teacher has high expectations of all learners and provides maths teaching that is accessible, the pupils' self-esteem will grow and that will contribute to their learning as well.

What about children whose SEND affects their ability to learn maths? Are you really saying that ALL children can access these lessons?

There might be a few children, and we are talking about a very small minority, with cognitive difficulties which mean that they can’t learn in ordinary maths lessons. If the child is not learning, then they do need a different programme. A teacher shouldn’t feel embarrassed if a child does need to be taken out and taught separately, though still using teaching for mastery principles. We need to look at the individual and be realistic. I think teaching for mastery highlights where there is a real difficulty, because the vast majority of children will be learning and if there is a blockage for a particular child it will be clear that there is a need for more expert help.

So I’m not saying that the whole-class approach is suitable for every single child, but it’s appropriate for far more than we used to think when we created ‘bottom groups’ of children.

What about if you are just adopting a mastery approach and you teach Y5 or Y6 where the gaps are already huge? Are you still saying don’t differentiate?

Most schools were in that situation at the beginning of teaching for mastery. The reason I’m saying to reconsider differentiation is because we are a way down the road with teaching for mastery now. But If you have been teaching with the old style of differentiation, you can’t go in and suddenly teach in this style from day one, because it would fail. You need to go into it gently – maybe try a whole-class approach when starting with a topic that’s new to everyone in the class. Keep the class together and work at developing this approach over time. It’s why we’ve always said with teaching for mastery that schools’ biggest emphasis should be on Y1 and working through, just doing what you can for the older year groups.

What are the implications for teacher workload?

Teaching for mastery shifts the teacher workload, putting the emphasis more on designing the lesson: a lesson that builds the concept really well, in carefully-sequenced steps, and at the same time connects that concept. It shifts teacher workload on to things that will make the most difference, rather than just keeping children busy and producing work in books as evidence. As a concept builds over a number of weeks, that is good for teacher workload, because teachers can really focus in on the concept being taught rather than having to focus on work for many different groups

Let’s bring the children together rather than keeping them apart by planning different things for them. It does make the teaching easier and the teacher develops along with it – it’s great professional development to really think deeply about a concept.

To conclude, high-quality, carefully-sequenced lessons are required to enable all children to make progress. Further support and professional guidance in designing such lessons, are provided by the NCETM Curriculum Prioritisation resource.

If you prefer to listen to Debbie herself, you can hear this interview in a podcast episode.

Find out more about teaching for mastery and professional development that can support schools to introduce it.

*Attainment is measured by how well children do in assessments. The use of the term ‘prior attainment’ rather than ‘ability’ acknowledges that attainment often does not reflect ability very well, and that ability is not fixed, but can change with good learning. By talking about ‘prior attainment’ we try to avoid predicting a child’s likely future attainment which can become a self-fulfilling prophecy and put a ceiling on a child’s learning.

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