Medium Term plans in Primary Mathematics

How does your school organise their mathematics curriculum? There are broadly two ways of doing this. You could, in a three term year, divide the content equally between each term and teach a third in the Autumn term, a third in the Spring term and the final third in the Summer term. Or you could teach each domain of maths in more depth, sequentially going through them during the year and not revisiting them.

Here are three different models that all have their strengths and weaknesses.

1. The Scattergun Coverage Model by Hamilton Trust.

I’m not entirely sure how this model was planned, except that it seems to have covered all the objectives throughout the year.

Hamilton Trust cover objectives in a seeming scattergun approach
Hamilton Trust cover objectives in a seeming scattergun approach

This little extract informs teachers in which weeks they will be visiting different objectives. In my school, with the amount of work required to adopt the new curriculum, we thought this would do us fine, but actually what happened (as I’ve written) was that teachers did not take ownership of their planning and instead merely delivered the lessons they found in the order they were given. The outcome was that, whilst individual lessons were often good, the units (a week or fortnight of lessons) were often aimless with no sense of the children being on a learning journey. Maths only happened in the maths lesson and was very much isolated from the rest of the curriculum.

Much of this was my fault. As the maths leader I hadn’t taken responsibility for the planning that teachers had adopted. I’m sure many schools can make the Hamilton Trust plans work for them, but for us it had led to failure and so we needed a change.

2. The year-long blocked approach by White Rose Maths Hub

It’s too late to adopt this now, but you could plan to take it on for September.

The Overview for the medium term plans created by the White Rose Maths Hub
The Overview for the medium term plans created by the White Rose Maths Hub

As you’ll see from the picture, all the number and calculation objectives are taught by the end of Week 9 Spring term, and in much longer blocks than we have used in the past, enabling children to learn concepts with a much greater depth. I think this model will work brilliantly, and I’m currently discussing with the staff whether to adopt it for the next academic year. This maths hub have created tests for their medium term plans so you can assess how well the children are getting on. You can sign up for their free resources here.

3. The Term-by-Term approach (by me)

This approach was recommended to me by a headteacher who was part of the first peer review we had after our not-brilliant Ofsted. She said that I should base my plans on the 1999 schemes of work. So I went back to them and found them still hosted on a website in Dudley. Then I used a document that I only have a paper copy of called the ‘Steps Up’. I believe this was created by a group of Birmingham mathematics SLEs and provides some useful guidance as to what are the steps up to achieving the age-related expectations in each year group.

The model I went for was for the teachers to visit each domain during a term. They would cover all the content by the end of the Spring term (half in the Autumn term, the other half in the Spring term) and then use the Summer term to consolidate the age-related expectations.

My medium term plans are here:

Medium Term Plans

You’ll see that they are not quite finished yet. I haven’t written the Summer Term, nor have I completed the mental maths part of the plans – what you see in the mental maths part are still the old expectations from 1999.

Finally, I made some tests for the plans. These tests are half termly and I used Testbase to make them – a paid for service that hosts all the test questions asked of children in the England’s testing system for the past 20 years. You can find the tests here in their own folder.

You may consider it quite an effort to write a whole load of medium term plans. But it’s given me a much better insight into the new curriculum and a much greater sense of ownership over what we are teaching at my school. The problem with using other people’s plans, is that you end up believing the lie that you shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel, when actually the process of reinvention is healthy all by itself.

There’s an easy way of doing this

In the run up to the National tests for eleven year olds called SATs this May, I was practising with some of my pupils what some of the question would look like.

The girl looked at the question and said: “there’s an easy way of doing this.”

The question said 56 ÷ 4 =

It is one of those rare questions in a Key Stage 2 SATs paper that requires a simple answer to a mathematical expression. The girl I’m sure had seen that question every year for the last five years. Yet she was still hesitant – she had no instant response to the question. She had to think of the ‘easy way‘. And unfortunately she went on to choose the wrong easy way.

“My teacher told me you just drop the ‘6’ off the end, add one on to the 5 and that’s the answer.” Unfortunately the girl was remembering the ‘easy way’ for dividing by 9. And she was remembering the answer to the expression 54 ÷ 9 (which of course is 6).

This one of the reasons I dislike teaching children easy ways of doing things. In my experience most children who are taught easy ways have learned the underlying principles behind them. They then can only remember a small number of many easy ways and eventually they forget which way is which and when to use it. The next step is to decide that they can’t do mathematics anymore and they switch off from the subject altogether.

To quote a biblical metaphor, it’s a bit like building your house on the sand. It only takes a single storm of confusion to reveal that there were no foundations and everything is washed away.

Putting it another way, it’s like badly applying Bloom’s taxonomy to teaching. It seems we’re very keen in the teaching world at the moment to find ways of teaching those higher skills of evaluating and creating. But we miss the vital step between remembering things and applying them – that of understanding them.

We teachers often talk about that ‘wow’ moment in lessons – that realisation by the students that they are really ‘getting it’. This most often happens in 1:1 interactions but can also happen with larger groups. When I look at the Bloom’s Taxonomy chart I would say that that ‘wow’ moment comes in the ‘understanding’ phase. It’s not when we’re sure children can remember things by heart, or when we see them diligently applying their knowledge, nor even we see the outcome of a great piece of creativity. It’s when children comprehend, when you can look into their eyes and know they have understand – when they get it.

So, back to the girl with the maths problem.

Striving for that moment of understanding, I asked, “are you sure that’s how to divide by 4?”

She looked at the problem, hesitated for a moment and said. “Oh no. There’s an easy way to divide by 4. Halve it and halve it again.”

I couldn’t argue with that process. She proceeded to halve 56 by writing down 2.5 and 3. Then she wrote 2.8 in the answer box. I almost slapped my forehead in despair.

After a few more minutes of remembering how to halve, she did eventually get to the point where she found that half of 56 was 28 and then half of 28 was 14. She wrote that in the answer box.

Not satisfied, I asked her, “what if it had been 56 ÷ 6? How could you have done that?” She looked at me, blankly. I think that she was a little disappointed that even though she had arrived at the correct answer I hadn’t showered her in praise.

Divide by 6? I don’t have an easy way for that.” OK. She didn’t actually say those words, but I’m sure she was thinking them.

So I showed her the number line in the photo below. I showed her how you could count up in 4s or in groups of 4 to arrive at the answer. I showed her how it would also work for dividing by 6 or dividing by 7.

Trying to teach understanding, not just an easy way

I didn’t really get that ‘wow’ moment I was hoping for. I think she begrudgingly accepted that maybe the number line had some merits. Of course counting up in this way requires good recall of times table facts – facts that she struggled to remember.

It is interesting to me that the first stage on Bloom’s Taxonomy of remembering seems to have been pirated away for this particular student. Where she couldn’t initially remember to halve and her poor recall of times tables facts limited her approach to this question, she could, by contrast, remember quite well that there are some ‘easy ways‘ for doing things in maths. This in turn limited her understanding of the principles of division and stopped her applying any knowledge she had to this problem.

It seems to me then that we need to stop teaching tricks and easy ways that fill up children’s memories. We need to teach children to recall and remember important facts first, such as how to halve and double and times table facts. Then we need to teach children understanding, such as what division is – that it is both grouping and sharing (depending on the context). Then we can give them opportunities to apply their knowledge.