In March, I ran a presentation at MathsConf in Bristol about how we dealt with our department worries about our top set year 7s.

Many of them seemed to be lacking resilience, stick-ability, perseverance, grit – whatever you call it, they don’t seem to have it.

We noticed that a large number of pupils who had all done well in year 6 tests (scoring 109 or more out of 120) now had an approach to their maths – particularly  maths that they had not met, or had only covered in a superficial way before.  That limited their progress and engagement in the subject.

They tended to:

  • become disengaged without close monitoring
  • ask for help ‘too quickly’
  • become distracted
  • approach the question in an illogical way
  • get flustered when they weren’t sure what to do
  • lack confidence when approaching new material
  • fail to ‘use the clues’ in a question.

However, in this group of ‘giver-uppers’, there were a number of students who clearly had considerable resilience – among them skate champions, surfers and a top-notch sailor.

They hadn’t given up at those activities, so why were they giving up in maths?

Why did students show less staying power with maths than with some other activities? © Thinkstock

We had a long, hard look at what was going on. We asked the students, we observed each other’s lessons and collected some lovely data .

The reasons

We thought there were four main reasons for our students’ lack of resilience.

  1. Not trying through fear of failure
    “Failure is the same as being stupid. If I get things wrong I have failed. If I don’t really invest effort into this thing that looks new or difficult then I have not really got it wrong, so not failed, so not stupid.”
  2. Inattention
    “I try hard and I look at the questions and I read the words. I can’t really see the clues in the question that tell me what I should be doing, though they are obvious to my teacher. I get started on a course of action or decide on a hypothesis and then can’t really change my path, even in the face of overwhelming evidence.”
  3. Tactical inattention
    “I am unable to balance the two inputs – doing ‘maths activity’ and other distractions.  Sometimes I choose to focus on the distraction input deliberately because I’m a bit like number 1, above.”
  4. Tevs (In our school, ‘tevs’ is shorthand for ‘whatever’, because saying ‘whatever’ is just too much effort!)
    “I don’t see the value in doing this, I don’t recognise the benefits.” 

The solutions

These are some of the solutions we tried out, which have largely proven to be effective over the last term.

Tell them it is difficult if it is likely to be difficult

This gives them an out if they find something hard at first. Give them questions that don’t follow the usual routines: here is a short, limited-time activity, here is the answer, here is the next one. Give them some questions that might take days to solve, and don’t give them the answers. Try to help them experience absorption, without just telling them to ‘focus’.

Set problems with many answers or routes

The greater the number of possible solutions, the more your answer is a matter of opinion. The more it depends on your point of view, the easier it is to propose and argue for a possible solution. And hopefully the easier it is to accept that other ideas are more plausible or efficient.

Push their noticing/observation skills

We gave our year 7s (and ultimately year 8s too) lots of short (and not so short) snappy puzzles to help develop their attention and observation skills.For example we showed them some images with errors in them and asked them to spot the mistakes. Some of these also overlapped with those in the categories above. I’ll delve into these further in my next blog.

Try some inattention puzzles or selective attention clips and movies

You may well be familiar with the How many passes? film. If not, take a look below:

We showed this to our year 7s (we have them all at the same time so they could not tell each other what happens).

Now we set them a question, and they ask each other, “But where is the gorilla in this question?”

They aren’t perfect, and certainly there is still some way to go, but we have noticed that in the last eight weeks, many of the pupils have become better at trying.

More of them are giving things a go, and we see far more of them spending just a little bit longer thinking about the clues in front of them, which is great progress in our eyes.