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Maths from below

Maths from below


Reading time: 4 minutes.


Julie Jacques, HLTA and SSAT lead practitioner, Cambourne Village College, explains her well-received approaches to maths teaching through more effective use of teaching assistants and practical resources to improve understanding.

Thinking back to secondary school, sitting in top set maths: algebra. That was easy because I just followed the rules. But did I truly understand what I was doing and why? Did I even know that number and algebra were so interlinked? The answer is no. My favourite maths teacher had taken a great deal of time and effort to draw, with chalk, a cumulative frequency diagram. Did I have a clue how she created it? No. The methodical way I plodded through pages of textbook questions: did it give me a greater depth of understanding and lead to me becoming a better mathematician? The answer again is no.

My educational path took me into the academia of history, before administration, then I became a TA, and finally fell into the maths classroom. At my second Cambridgeshire secondary school, working solely within the maths department, I was allowed, and had the courage to use, the freedom to be creative in delivering my lessons. I must have been successful, as every head of department in the school came to see me teach the year 10 class. One of my former heads of department said, “you don’t see things the way we do.”

After a spell out of education raising my children, I landed a job at the host school for the Cambridge maths hub, and threw myself head-first into attending workgroups. I was like a sponge, irritating my colleagues with constant little chats about manipulatives, CPA (concrete, pictorial, abstract) and were they now using the term ‘ones’ instead of ‘units’? It all just clicked; I was fuelled with wanting to spread the word, learn more and have the greatest impact possible on students and colleagues alike.

Three years have passed and the world of maths education is still the exciting place where I want to be. I’ve been able to collaborate with many colleagues in a variety of ways through leading and attending training opportunities.

The response to the TA workgroups on offer has been overwhelming. Colleagues travelled across the county, apparently desperate to acquire one of the limited places. The positive feedback, via gap tasks and emails, indicates the impact that this training has had within the classroom setting. From a secondary TA who has gone on to train to be a maths teacher: “The training has certainly inspired me to use the concept; ’build it, draw it, say/explain it, and write it’. This concept is now being used in all my maths support sessions as well as the maths interventions at ‘the centre’ (for students with SEND). It is extremely useful to visualise a mathematical problem, first by using the practical resources to build it then sketching it on a piece of paper before solving it. I use more practical resources now as a result of attending the training…. In addition, I’m always challenging the students’ answers now, to get a better reasoning and better understanding of how they reached their answer/conclusion.”

From a secondary science teacher: “I love the way that you can visualise what the numbers mean. I think it provides a great way to ‘see’ what the number means, rather than trying to apply a formula correctly, but without necessarily understanding the relevance. It was very timely as I am going on to teach Chemistry GCSE next year and will need to cover moles with my classes… this provides a great pedagogical technique to help their understanding.”

Visualising what the numbers mean “provides a great way to ‘see’ what the number means, rather than trying to apply a formula correctly, but without necessarily understanding the relevance”

We must ensure that our teachers are equipped with the most up-to-date resources, pedagogy and techniques. Also, that our most valuable classroom tool, the TA, is armed with the confidence and tools to support all students in the most appropriate way. Quality training for TAs across the curriculum, my colleagues from both primary and secondary settings tell me, is still lacking. I’ve been so grateful that my school has embraced my passion for the subject and allowed me the opportunity to make a small dent in the training of TAs in the subject of maths across my county, but we are only skimming the surface. There is much more that could be provided, both in-house and through networking workgroups, to raise the knowledge and standards of TAs within the classroom, which can only have a positive impact on supporting our students to fulfil their potential.


Julie Jacques

Julie Jacques has worked in Cambridgeshire secondary schools for 13 years. She is a qualified HLTA (maths specialism) who has worked as both a TA and UQT. As a NCETM secondary mastery specialist, she delivers training to TAs on behalf of the Cambridge maths hub.
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