Why does coloured paper make everything easier?

I have been conducting a bit of an experiment with one of my classes over the past few weeks.  To give a bit of background information, this is a very small year 10 class who firmly believe that maths is too hard.  I have been teaching this class for about a year now and have slowly been gaining their ‘trust’.  They know that I won’t ask them to do anything I don’t think they can do, but they still regularly say it’s all too hard.

So, I started to think about how I could get them to try new things.  I began to put all work onto coloured paper – a variety of different colours, but stayed away from RAG as I didn’t want them predicting the difficulty of the questions by the colour they were printed on.  And guess what?  It seems that maths is easier when presented on coloured paper!

A class that ‘couldn’t do’ maths have been doing all sorts of more complex work recently.  I know that I need to ‘ween’ them off the colours but at the moment it seems that there is nothing that they won’t have a go at!  That is a good result as far as I am concerned.

Getting them to believe

I have taught a lot of different students over a lot of years and I am good at my job.  But I can not do anything with students if the are not prepared to get involved.  One of the reasons, I believe, that some students fail to engage in lessons, is simply that they don’t believe that they can do it!  Whatever “it” happens to be.

I started to think earlier in the year (when I changed classrooms) how I could improve this self belief.  One of the things I found, when specifically looking, was that some very weak students will not engage because they are afraid to get things wrong and it is better (in their mind) to disengage from the lesson than to try and fail.  This, almost, conscious refusal to try was something that I thought I could get through with the right resources.  So, after some thought and a bit of research, I discovered whiteboard topped tables.  I then found that one of the other departments had some that they did not want – so a swap was arranged.

I did not know whether my plan would work or not, but I set out my class with pencil cases of whiteboard pen on every table and told the students they could write on the tables.  The first week was not much fun for me.  I saw many penises on many tables as well as many other non mathematical symbols, but I hoped this was just teething problems due to the novelty value.  Sure enough, after a week or two, all I could see was calculations and working out on the tables.

This was great to see with my top sets, but the best thing was that my weakest students were also beginning to engage.  It seemed that, if they could simply erase any mistakes, so nobody knew they had happened, they were much happier to try.  It wasn’t long before my bottom set year 10 students were tacking some quite tricky Pythagoras problems that they wouldn’t have gone near if the only option was to write in books.

I am still very clear with my students that I want to see all working out in books, but am happy for they to test drive their ideas first – and its working!