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Building Maths Stamina

Nearing the end of the school year, assessments are done, reports are done. It’s a time when you can capitalise on all that you have built with your students in your journey together. 

This year something stood out to me about my students. 

Students with different skill levels were persisting with quite challenging maths tasks. Even when their answers were wrong they would cheerfully head back to their group determined to solve the task, or at least get much closer to the answer. 

I had underestimated them, thinking that after a few mistakes many would be furious and start doubting themselves and give up. How wrong I was – over and over again.

So how did this happen? What contributed to this building of stamina – to this willingness and determination to solve mathematic tasks? I had seen their stamina building across the year but here it was far more extensive. 

Here’s my take on the building of a culture of stamina – alongside resilience, persistence, team-work, and high-level thinking – in my classroom. 

We’re a Thinking Class

From the earliest days of the school year, I emphasised how we were going to be different as a class. We would be a thinking class, a class that prided itself on thinking at a high level. We would take on, and succeed with, tasks that many people would think were above us.

Regularly reinforcing these messages across the day was critical. Using low floor, high ceiling activities, ensured that all could participate and be challenged at, and beyond, their level.

With my students using stand up vertical whiteboards, in the thinking classroom style advocated by Peter Liljedahl, I would highlight with a different coloured marker – evidence of persistence (after mistakes), of taking risks (even if it didn’t get them to the answer), of thinking at a high level and clear representations of that thinking. These highlights would then form the basis of a short, sharp Number or Maths Talk, lead by students and myself. Students would then return to their groups, often taking up what we had discussed in the Number/Math Talks.

On other occasions, I would encourage my students to take walks around the room, to notice, learn from, and engage with other groups. The message was clear: we can teach and learn from each other.

We’re a Critically Reflective Class

Often following a challenging maths task we would critical reflect on our attitude and performance. Students would rate themselves out of 10 (using their two hands) in respect to: persistence, stamina, attitude towards the task, team-work, and high level thinking.

Students would be asked to justify their ratings with reasons or evidence. At times we would discuss what attitudes and approaches had lead to an improvement or decline in their self ratings. 

We’re a Class That’ll Get There

Throughout the year I was consistent in my messaging: No matter the task we will get there eventually; It may take longer than usual, we may get diverted and make errors – but we’ll get there. I wanted my students to know that I was confident in their capacity to succeed regardless of the circumstances. 

Having a consistent approach for when students checked their work with me – was important. Highlighting strengths – in the layout of their work, their approach to the task, and their team-work – I would be up-beat, indicating whether they were close to, or far away from the answer. We might also discuss how to check and/or review their answer. 

If students’ answers were well off the mark, I would suggest areas of their work to review and how they might do this. This was crucial in terms of students not becoming demoralised and giving up. 

  • Sometimes a short skills session may have been necessary, lead by myself or other students. Here I might group students experiencing similar difficulties. 
  • For some students, we would briefly discuss what could have lead to an error of this magnitude, what parts they had reviewed, and their methods of doing so.

These were short, sharp check-ins, with the emphasis on students getting back to the task – and me remaining optimistic that they would succeed even if it took time. 

We’re a Class That Learns from Mistakes

We often hear that mistakes can help develop our thinking if we invest time in reviewing what went wrong. That’s been critical in my class.

Students often seem to have the view that mistakes are bad, something to be upset about and move quickly on from. Mistakes in our class however, were valuable because they signalled what we still had to learn. Being able to identify mistakes was valuable too. 

We invested time investigating mistakes identifying where they occurred, and what made them mistakes. Sometimes we would form a small group to learn and teach about a common mistake. 

Over time I began to recognise the value of estimating answers, assisting us to recognise likely errors  – if  our answer was quite different to our estimate. Teaching estimating then became a more important part of learning maths in my classroom. 

We’re a Class That Showcases What We Do

Like most classrooms we often have visitors, whether that be our leaders or visitors from other schools. If there’s an opportunity for us to be observed I take it.

I want to showcase what we can do as a class and I inform my students why I want people to see our thinking and skills in action. They of course always rise to the occasion and I ensure that we receive feedback from our visitors from a strengths, and what we could do to improve perspective. 

We’re a Class That Values Diversity in Strategies and Models

Influenced by Pam W Harris (Maths is Figure-Out-Able), I teach my students multiple ways to solve tasks and to represent their thinking, whilst also showcasing (through number talks) student driven approaches or representations.

When facing a challenging task then, students start by getting familiar with the scope and demands of the task. Then after a short period, we briefly review so students can see that there is not just one way to go about solving the task and laying out their work. 

As students work on their vertical whiteboards I direct them to specific groups that are approaching the task or representing their thinking in quite different ways, encouraging peer to peer interaction in respect to asking questions and learning from each other. Additionally we often discuss student preferences for particular strategies and models of representing of their thinking. 

We’re a Class That Recognises That Productive Time Spent on Tasks is Important

To build students’ stamina involves increasing the amount of productive time spent on tasks. Over the course of the year, students in my class come to value the productive time we spend:

  • developing skills for tasks;
  • persisting when we don’t get the answer straight away;
  • reflecting on our approaches, attitudes, thinking and team-work;
  • reflecting on our strategies and models of representation;
  • working on tasks that are multi-faceted, requiring thinking and working through our strategies to solve such;
  • teaching and learning from each other.

Consequently my students become much more willing and eager to invest the time and effort on mathematical tasks, challenging themselves beyond what they previously thought was possible. 

Further Resources