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Some pupils love maths but many find it hard work.
Learning the basics requires a lot of repetitive practice, whether it’s number recognition, the four rules, or multiplying decimals by ten or 100. All primaries try to make learning fun and use concrete methods, but there are only so many times you can cut up a pizza to teach fractions.
Teachers have always needed a big bank of materials that go over the basics until pupils are confident and can get the right answer time and again. Worksheets have a limited appeal – as we all found out during lockdown – but children need that constant reiteration and that means putting in a lot of hours to develop their skills.
I work at Arbour Vale School, an all-age special needs school in Slough. While few mainstream primary schools will have pupils with profound and multiple disabilities, you may have pupils who are neurodiverse or have social, emotional and behavioural difficulties that act as a barrier to learning.
We offer our pupils an individualised curriculum in an inclusive school community so we’re always trying to find the right starting point and ways to show progression.
Many children believe they ‘can’t do maths’. As they get older their confidence dips still further because they can’t build on the fundamental concepts they should remember from earlier years. While revision matters, it’s important to set work which is not just a repeat of what children have done in previous years.
Children can also be reluctant to answer questions in maths in case they get it wrong. Maths questions usually have just one right answer and it may require a good memory to find it. Our pupils struggle to recall number facts and may become mute or be disruptive.
Games are a major part of children’s lives already. The Gaming the System report from the Children’s Commissioner in 2019 starts by saying that an overwhelming majority of children (93%) in the UK play video games. So already we’re tapping into something that children enjoy and see as a worthwhile leisure activity.
Game-based learning offers a non-threatening and supportive environment where pupils can practise their skills. It’s designed to offer rewards and incentives to children and help them recognise their own progress.
This might be via point-scoring, moving up levels, leader boards or rewards in the form of certificates, virtual medals or trophies.
Games let children repeat activities without being aware of the repetitions because they are being entertained at the same time. Children might take a route through a game which involves moving sideways or even back to a lower level before moving on.
This solves the problem of differentiation for busy teachers and consolidates or reinforces prior learning.
Studies have indicated that when lessons are gamified, pupils’ attention spans increase and those with ADHD are less disruptive and more focused. Pupils see their results immediately so they can check their own progress – this can be very motivating.
It also keeps children engaged and on task, freeing up teachers to provide extra attention or one-on-one tutoring to pupils who need help.
Edtech is a vital pillar of our teaching and learning strategy at our school and as such, we’ve got a history of working closely alongside edtech developers to co-design resources that will effectively meet our teachers’ and pupils’ needs.
We had previously undertaken this with other subjects, but were yet to incorporate this across our maths curriculum. With this in mind, we wanted to integrate a games-based learning platform that would complement our pupils’ unique needs and sustain their engagement.
We worked with game-based learning platform Mangahigh, initially conceived as a mainstream product, to tailor the educational content so it was more accessible for children with SEND.
For example, we reported back that only a few of our pupils would be able to do the activities provided and asked for additional games that started at a lower level. The team developed new content for ages five to seven so we can use it with a broader spectrum of our pupils.
As part of this collaboration, we piloted text-to-speech functions. Sentence-based questions used to make some pupils feel anxious as they struggled to understand what was being asked of them.
However, the read-aloud feature means pupils can listen to the questions as often as they want and this helps them to have a clearer idea of what they are being asked to do.
If pupils get answers wrong, the AI algorithm takes them to a different activity. I’ve been impressed by this aspect of the software because the recommendations really do pinpoint the exact area pupils need to improve.
The analytics have been a powerful tool for us and we focused on this during lockdown when we weren’t seeing all our pupils face to face. It’s not just about seeing how many answers are right and wrong. I was able to check the number of times a pupil had attempted a question or activity so I could judge their mastery of a topic.
Software is not a one-stop solution, but it’s given our pupils a different approach to learning maths, increased their ability to work on their own and given them the incentive to carry on even when they find the subject difficult.
James Akerman is head of ICT at Arbour Vale School. Alongside 15 other special schools, Arbour Vale is part of Orchard Hill College Academy Trust. Follow the school on Twitter at @arbour_vale.
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