Teaching Mixed Attainment Year 7: A year of Mistakes!

At my current school, Year 7 Maths lessons are taught in their tutor groups; they are not placed into sets until Year 8. If you’d asked me six months ago how I felt about this, I’d have responded with something along the lines of ‘it is just so hard’. It really was.

Whenever I taught my Year 7 class last year, I had an overwhelming feeling that many were not progressing as well as they should be. In terms of the assessment system in place at my school, they were generally performing as expected, but I was still not convinced. I felt that strategies that I was using to stretch and challenge the highest attaining pupils were not sufficiently stretching and challenging, and I felt deeply guilty that I wasn’t supporting the lowest attaining pupils to master fundamental concepts. Above all, I was knackered! Despite being a lovely class, it felt that I had so much more to think about compared to teaching other setted classes, and so planning and preparation took significantly more time.

This year, however, I’m feeling quite differently about the whole experience! Obviously, we are only three weeks into term right now, but so far, it seems to be going significantly more smoothly. I will also say this with the caveat that I am not necessarily advocating for teaching mixed attainment classes. I am aware that the research is fairly inconclusive as to which is ‘better’ (especially when considering better for whom and the extent to which this is the case). Nonetheless, I am currently loving teaching Year 7, and so in this post I am going to share three main mistakes I was making last year, as well as the strategies that I’ve put into place to improve things.

Mistake 1: ‘Teacher explanation and modelling must be done quickly.’

The reason I continually made this mistake last year was that I didn’t want my highest attaining pupils to be bored. If, for example, I was teaching pupils how to find the nth term of a linear sequence, I knew that the highest attaining pupils may well be able to do this after seeing one example. As such, I would often talk quickly and at a more superficial level than I would with other classes. Regularly, I would say things along these lines:

Okay, so today we’re going to be adding fractions. I know some of you in here will already be quite confident with this, so we’re just going to go through a couple of super quick examples and then you can be moving onto some more challenging questions’.

In short, I was consistently apologetic for having to explain or model or demonstrate.

The consequence of this was typically as follows: while my highest attaining pupils would have understood a given procedure at a superficial level, several would have over-generalised or under-generalised and formed misconceptions, which I often didn’t detect until later. The lowest attaining pupils were often completely overwhelmed by these highly rushed demonstrations, and I would find myself immediately going over to the same few pupils and re-explaining at a more appropriate pace. Over time, this resulted in some pupils tuning out during whole class exposition, as they were aware they were only going to hear it again from me. For all pupils who fell somewhere in the middle of these two groups (a significant proportion), their success would have depended pretty much entirely on how much prior knowledge they already had. I was failing to use effective formative assessment strategies (multiple choice questions, mini whiteboards) because I was so keen to move them on to their differentiated work, which meant I was never really sure until the end of the lesson if they had been successful.


Mistake 2: ‘All independent work must be differentiated into multiple levels.’

In these Year 7 lessons, there would always be ‘bronze, silver and gold’ tasks. Sometimes, in my planning, I would worry that gold wouldn’t be sufficiently challenging, and so would have to introduce the platinum super challenge level. At other times, I would worry that some pupils wouldn’t be able to access the bronze task, so I would spend time creating support sheets to be used alongside.

First of all, this was a nightmare to facilitate. I would spend forever at the photocopier before teaching them, and because I tried not to allocate in advance which level pupils should be working at, I would print multiple spare copies which would end up wasted. It also meant that simple things such as reading out the answers to the first five questions to assess that everyone was on the right track took far longer than necessary. More problematic than this, though, was that pupils often did not understand the task they needed to be doing.

If, for example, the lesson was on adding fractions, the gold or platinum task would often be in the form of a puzzle or investigation from Nrich, or some UKMT problems. Due to the superficial exposition that had happened, pupils didn’t have the core knowledge in place to be able to access these. Equally frustratingly, as it would have taken too much time to detail exactly what was required for each task, pupils may have had the required knowledge but remained unclear about exactly what they were being expected to do.

At the other end of the spectrum, if the lesson was on adding fractions, the bronze or support task may have been something related to adding fractions with the same denominator, and in this case, the examples that I had rushed through to the whole class wouldn’t have helped pupils to complete it. Now, I absolutely still differentiate work for all my classes, but the way that I do this now is quite different (and easier to implement): this will be discussed later.

Mistake 3: ‘Pupils will be working on different skills within the same lesson.’

This mistake, on the surface, appears very similar to the second mistake outlined above. However, this feels that it was an even bigger barrier to being successful when teaching Year 7.

As an example of this: in our Year 7 Scheme of Work, we teach/review the process of multiplying and dividing numbers. Obviously, we are aware that all pupils will have learnt this at primary school and most pupils are reasonably proficient at it in Year 7, but we are also aware that without complete fluency in these topic areas, pupils will struggle with more complex procedures. Now, within my Year 7 class last year, I had pupils who could not recall their times tables, alongside pupils who could demonstrate multiplying three and four digit numbers. Neither point seemed quite appropriate to start, so I began by quickly modelling multiplying two digit numbers before pupils began practising.

For the strongest pupils, I began by giving them some worded problems which required them to multiply large numbers. This was a terrible idea: they didn’t need to think about the context in the problems (they knew) it was just going to be multiplication, so they rushed through and became bored, as is understandable. Quickly, I improvised, and moved them on to practising multiplying and dividing decimals, as this seemed like a fairly natural progression.

However, later in the year, I was required to teach the whole class how to multiply decimals. At this stage, I thought a good next step for the highest attaining pupils who were already fairly fluent would be to look at dividing decimals, and then decided to introduce them to standard form. In effect, throughout the year, I helped the strongest pupils to access lots of topics and replicate lots of procedures, but they were not being given the opportunity to think more deeply about the maths and the concepts involved: it was a case of procedure, procedure, procedure. Meanwhile, I had other pupils struggling to access the primary content of the lesson, and it felt as though pupils were developing the mindset of ‘oh, well, those are the people who are good at maths’: ability was being viewed as fixed.

What next?

At the start of this academic year, I became determined to improve my Year 7 teaching. While I am aware that it wasn’t completely terrible last year (honestly, believe it or not, there were moments of excellence in the midst of all the mistakes), I knew I could be doing a better job.

The first decision I made was to slow down when explaining and modelling. This has not been easy. I have to keep reminding myself that even the very brightest pupils will not be unduly negatively affected if they have to wait an extra five minutes before they begin their own work. Obviously, I am still the person in the classroom who knows the most maths, and so I’m trying to feel less guilty about making sure my explanations are clear and my examples are well chosen. This still does not need to take that long (indeed, by making use of silent teacher and example problem pairs), this is often very efficient. Moreover, when I am talking, I have realised that the prior knowledge my pupils have isn’t what I had presumed it would be.

Just yesterday, for example, I discovered that none of my current class had been shown the divisibility rules for 3 and 9 – it was so joyous when they discovered this was true. If I had rushed through as before (‘right, this is how we divide numbers, I know some of you can do this already, this will be quick’), then that point would have been lost.

I am also developing my AfL strategies with this class so they are far more effective than before. This is so important with mixed classes; all too frequently you will find a student who excels at a particular topic but struggles elsewhere, or you’ll find that one of your typically highest attaining students has a blind spot when it comes to nets of 3D shapes. I will now use multiple choice questions every lesson (pupils can vote with their fingers), which means I can detect misconceptions earlier and put steps into place to remedy them.

In terms of differentiation: this will always, always be so important. It is really important that all pupils are supported and challenged in terms of the demands placed upon them, but this does not have to mean five different worksheets.

Recently, when students needed to practise multiplying numbers, I gave them this task (by the ever excellent Don Steward).


Picture2At a surface level, this doesn’t look particularly interesting. Using it in a classroom, however, was absolutely fascinating. For pupils who are unsure where to begin, you can just tell them to write the numbers in any order in the gaps, multiply them, and see what the product is. You can chat to other pupils about what the units column of what the multiplier and the multiplicand must be: why? How do you know? Is there more than one option? Quite simply, by giving pupils the same task but which will be accessible to most (if not all), you can plan your questions and conversations and prompts much more easily than if all your energy is going into distributing the next worksheet.



A similar activity is this, on adding decimals. Again, this is something that looks almost uninteresting on the surface, and it is certainly something that I wouldn’t have given to my highest attaining pupils in the past, as I would have reasoned that they could already fluent add decimals. When I did use this task, I discovered that even some of the pupils who could add decimals really struggled with reasoning about where various digits must be – but the nature of the task meant that they were forced to think about this while also practising the procedure.

I think probably the biggest cause of my Year 7 lessons being so much more successful than before is this change of approach to resourcing. Don Steward’s blog (https://donsteward.blogspot.com/) is my go to place, as are www.openmiddle.com and www.mathsvenns.com This is not always easy; some topics lend themselves to this style of activity much better than others do. As I say, this is only an overview of what is working for me in the classroom at the moment. I know that there are other people teaching mixed attainment classes with a very different approach to the one that I am using, and so I am really not suggesting that this is the ‘best’ way. I’ll hopefully write something in a few months time about whether this year’s experience is continuing to be quite so positive!

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