Key Takeaways from the Education Endowment Foundation Maths Report

Thanks to John Dabell for this post which unpacks the key insights learned from the EEF Maths Report. John is a teacher with over 20 years teaching experience across all key stages. He has worked as a national in-service provider and is a trained OfSTED inspector. 

Evidence is key, something the Chartered College of Teaching (CCT) recognises and prizes. It has joined with medical and policing colleges to commit to using evidence-based practice and warns that “untested interventions” can be harmful and wasteful of resources.

Teachers are swamped with information about resources, programmes and CPD which make grand claims about maths impact.

But we need to be wary of quick fixes and snake-oil salesmen that promise to interest, thrill, inspire and raise attainment. How do we know if they are secure, reliable and relevant to our own school and pupils? How can we sort the wheat from the chaff and know what works? Our best friend is evidence from research. 

So we don’t have to wade through glue or rely on hunches, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) have produced an accessible guidance report to support and inform maths teaching of seven to 14 year-olds and is particularly relevant to those struggling with their maths.

Improving Mathematics in Key Stages 2 and 3’, contains eight practical and evidence-based recommendations using the best existing research available and offers important guidance on the craft of maths teaching.

Each recommendation is intended to help primary and secondary schools to close the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their classmates.

They recommend to:

1. Use assessment and knowledge of common misconceptions to guide planning, intervention and feedback

2. Use manipulatives and representations to help pupils engage with and understand maths concepts

3. Teach strategies to help pupils become better problem solvers

4. Enable pupils to develop a rich network of mathematical knowledge

5. Develop pupils’ independence and motivation by developing their ‘metacognitive’ skills – their ability to plan, monitor and evaluate their thinking and learning

6. Use tasks and resources like technology and textbooks to challenge and support pupils’ mathematics

7. Use structured interventions to provide additional support for children who are struggling with maths

8. Support pupils to make a successful transition between primary and secondary school, when attitudes and attainment in the subject tend to dip.

The EEF have produced a clear and concise summary map of these recommendations which can be found here.

The meat of the 10,000+ word report takes each recommendation and unpacks them in detail, providing a useful collection of examples based on research to help us plan for improvement.

It is advised that maths subject leaders take time to absorb the report and share its contents with their colleagues, as there is plenty to take away and build into your maths provision. The report is not intended to provide a complete guide to mathematics teaching as there are features of maths teaching not covered.

Key Headlines

The main thrust of the report is on improving the quality of teaching and what teachers can do to be more effective maths practitioners. It doesn’t offer anything ‘new’ as such but instead offers clear, actionable guidance based on existing research which provides an accessible overview of the dos and don’ts of ‘great maths teaching’. As always, context is king so each recommendation needs careful consideration relevant to your own classrooms and school.

What the EEF report does very well is to provide summary nuggets for each of the 8 areas identified and these are worth pouring over together as a staff team for further discussion and feeding into development plans.

Subject knowledge and understanding take centre stage in the report and emphasise the importance of teachers being au fait with the common errors and misconceptions children (and adults) can make such as the idea that multiplying two numbers together always makes a bigger number. The report recommends that teachers plan lessons using a variety of examples and non-examples to address potential misconceptions before they arise.  

The report guidance urges us to think carefully about how we use concrete manipulatives and representations in our teaching, citing five relevant meta-analyses with stronger evidence to support concrete manipulatives. It notes that although multiple representations can support understanding, too many can cause muddles and mix-ups and thwart learning. 

When it comes to problem-solving, the report urges us to think about a variety of approaches including organising our “teaching so that problems with similar structures and different contexts are presented together, and, likewise, that problems with the same context but different structures are presented together.”

Some recommendations tell us what teachers have been ploughing away at for decades, for example, pupils should master basic mental arithmetic and be able to recall their times tables quickly or they may well have difficulty with more challenging maths later in school.


Are there any surprises?

Perhaps not bombshells but there are a few points to move our eyebrows northwards.
A welcome observation is the support given for the use of calculators, a much maligned and under-used resource at primary. Evidence on calculator use was found to be robust , with a number of studies showing they can have positive impacts. The report recommends calculators should be “integrated into the teaching of mental and other calculation approaches” and to enable pupils to self-regulate their use. 

When it comes to giving maths homework we might want to press the pause button on inviting parental involvement. The report urges us to exercise caution, because getting their contributions have often not been linked to increased attainment.

The report recognises the place of maths interventions in school but urges us to take a step back and consider whether they could do more harm than good. It notes that it is crucial to ensure that “the intervention is more effective than the instruction pupils would otherwise receive; if this is not the case, intervention pupils may fall further behind their peers.” It also warns of intervention fatigue pointing out that structured interventions do not always need to be lengthy or intensive to be effective.

Arguably the true foundation of learning is talk and the report recognises the importance of discussion and dialogue for developing metacognition. Whilst dialogical teaching is given high status across the profession, the report recommends that teachers need to focus their efforts on teaching pupils how to engage in learning conversations; model discussions and how to listen. Are teachers equipped to do this? As the report says, “Orchestrating productive discussions requires considerable skill and so may require targeted professional development.”

Conclusion

What the EEF report does very well is open up the academic secret garden so we can all share in research that is sometimes hard to find or locked away. It supports evidence-informed maths teaching and acts as a starting point for a more evidence-informed approach to teaching maths.

Acting on the guidance is no simple matter and the EEF recognise the challenge faced by schools.
“These recommendations do not provide a ‘one size fits all’ solution. It is important to consider the delicate balance between implementing the recommendations faithfully and applying them appropriately in a school’s particular context. Implementing the recommendations effectively will therefore require careful consideration of context as well as sound professional judgement.”

The report advises against looking for a quick fix as change takes time and so recommends “taking at least two terms to plan, develop and pilot strategies on a small scale before rolling out new practices across the school.”.

To help support acting on the guidance reports, the EEF has teamed-up with the Institute of Effective Education to launch a national network of Research Schools who will become a focal point for evidence-based practice in their region. Find out more here.

More support will be produced by the EEF and its associates including an upcoming guidance report which will draw on the best available evidence regarding implementation and examine the role of leadership, CPD, and evaluation.

The report covers a lot of ground but if there is one thing that we can all take-away and implement, it’s a passion for the subject. As the report says; “School leaders should ensure that all staff, including non-teaching staff, encourage and model motivation, confidence, and enjoyment in maths for all children.”
The report has that special combination of passion and pragmatism and is a must-read for all teachers.  

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