It’s well known that maths is a subject with which many students struggle - so much so that it has almost become socially acceptable to say you ‘just can’t do maths’.
So says someone who should know: Stephen Farmer, Headteacher at Cranbrook Education Campus, a new school serving pupils from 2-16 in the heart of Devon’s “youngest town”.
Part of the Ted Wragg Multi-Academy Trust, an 11-school, multi-Academy Trust responsible for the education of over 7000 children aged between 2-16, Farmer and his team say they strive to provide children with the very best educational experiences by employing using cutting edge technology to deliver a vibrant and exciting curriculum which makes the most of state-of-the-art facilities.
As a blended learning school, Cranbrook also tries to deliver a broad, rich learning experience to inspire active learners - and it’s also one of a number of Ted Wragg Trust schools in the to have partnered with a local tech company called Sparx around the development and integration of the latter’s personalised Maths learning technology, Sparx Maths.
The latter is a platform that employs ML (Machine Learning) alongside rich content to increase attainment and cut teacher workload. Farmer explains:
Disadvantaged students - for example, those from poorer backgrounds - make the least progress in maths, with recent reports confirming poor children are twice as likely to fail their Maths GCSE than those from richer areas.
Given that at his institution 42% of our secondary students are eligible for Pupil Premium (signalling financial disadvantage) and 48% are classed as SEND (Special educational needs and disability), Farmer says he and his team are well versed with the challenges disadvantaged pupils have in achieving their potential, especially in this vital subject.
Traditional teacher-led teaching supplemented and supported by online and offline materials
So maths is hard, and getting pupil engagement tricky. But another challenge - this time on the other side of the blackboard, as it were - is the burden teachers like Farmer and his staff face from what he calls “time-draining admin”:
The National Union of Teachers reported earlier this year that two-fifths of teachers, school leaders and support staff want to quit in the next five years, due to workload pressures. So every task that can be automated increases the level of individual support teachers can offer students - and similarly, the more data we can gather on student progress, the more personalised the support teachers can offer to ensure pupils aren’t left behind. We are focused here, then, not just on student attainment, but on retaining talented teachers by supporting them to have a better work-life balance and time to focus on what’s important – teaching.”
Noble aims - but how to achieve them? Farmer is convinced the answer lies in what he calls blended learning, where traditional teacher-led teaching is supplemented and supported by online and offline materials.
At Cranbrook Education Campus, we combine traditional teaching methods with a range of edtech. Technology is not always our go-to solution for the challenges we encounter but where impact can be evidenced, we are keen to explore new technologies that will make a real difference to learners and teachers alike.
What does that look like in practice? Farmer cites evidence from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) which suggests that homework can – on average – provide five months’ additional progress - but to ensure homework supports steady Maths progress, no matter the background of the student, tech help is vital.
All Cranbrook’s KS3 (Key Stage 3) pupils, that’s to say those between the ages of 11 and 15, receive an hour of online homework once a week. ML algorithms then ensure, he says, that this homework is personalised so they receive questions suited to their level of understanding. As a result, Farmer says:
The system adapts as students use it, making it harder or easier according to how they are doing. And as they also receive instant feedback on where they might be struggling, video content gives them the freedom to explore solutions and succeed at their own pace.
The feedback from students and parents is very positive and completion rates have soared. But there’s also a benefit for teachers, in terms of all that admin, he says:
For our teachers, this approach to homework gives them instant insight on completion and progress, as well as removing the burden of marking. The data shows them how students are developing, so they can reinforce positive progress and correct problem areas. Teachers are saving an average of 30 mins per class per week, and the impact this has had on staff well-being, as well as homework completion, is fantastic - and partly as a result of this success, we’ve now moved all homework across subjects online.
The systems is is also used to support in-class learning; alongside bookwork and teacher-led learning, students complete maths questions on tablets which give teachers instant insight into how each pupil is progressing. In turn, this data is used to monitor and respond to pupil progress - and as a result of the patterns the AI has identified, Cranbrook’s established extra Maths sessions based on student trends, prioritising interventions for disadvantaged learners:
Using Sparx Maths we achieved the highest rate of progress in Year 7 and 8 in a test of sixteen schools across Devon. Our disadvantaged pupils matched the progress of other peers – effectively halting the attainment gap. Our supplier tells us that its data suggests students make 65% more progress using this approach, and that there is 78% more progress for Pupil Premium students. We can certainly attest to the impact it’s had on students across the board - in particular, for those with additional challenges.”
As a result, Farmer wants next to try edtech for his primary pupils, and it’s now also been extended beyond Key Stage 3 to include GCSE students:
We are always looking for innovative solutions to facilitate learning experiences: in the 21st Century, edtech solutions provide rich, personalised learning experiences that give instant insights to teachers on the strengths and weaknesses of individual pupils and groups, allowing them to effectively target these misconceptions and close gaps in knowledge and skills. Effective technology is at the heart of Cranbrook Education Campus’ founding strategy, but this has given us real impetus to move all subject homework online, streamlining our entire approach to homework. And while we use several edtech solutions across different subjects, the success of this implementation gave us vital evidence that online homework is worth further investment.”
Would he advise other schools to do the same? Farmer says:
Some schools have issues with teachers being unwilling to accept new technologies. However, by ensuring they are a key part of its ongoing development any skepticism, fear or feelings of having technology foisted on them is eliminated. We’re keen to see how such partnerships help us to achieve even more in the future.