CfEM blog: Changing focus when things go wrong

Blog by Mark Stewart, GCSE Maths Curriculum Lead and CfEM Project Manager at Gateshead College, for the Centres for Excellence in Maths (CfEM) programme.

As a centre lead and practitioner, I recognise that being able to carry out high-quality, informed research in the classroom, especially when supported by a national panel of experts, is a rare privilege – one that educators should never take for granted.

The ability to teach face-to-face with learners has naturally, and quite rightly, always been taken for granted, but these unprecedented times have shown us that even this cannot be relied upon.

Education has faced many difficulties over the last year, and it is the current shift to online learning and its incumbent stresses that has created the complex landscape that we now find ourselves in; attempting to carry out traditional research in a very non-traditional environment.

The Government’s decision to close schools and colleges placed further pressure on our already beleaguered delivery staff and network partners – not to mention frustrated, anxious students – and caused those planning our action research projects to expedite the changes necessary to navigate the uncertainty ahead. We found our network partners were reprioritising their workloads, leaving little or no time for CfEM activity. This was disappointing but not surprising, we are all in ‘survival mode’ after all, though recruitment for next year’s National Trials will be challenging; we are looking to overcome this by continuing to communicate with partners regularly and relay information as and when it is available, and by empathising with their difficult position.

We found ourselves fighting to change our research strategies on two fronts; disengagement from network partners and a sudden, though familiar, move to online learning. When it became apparent that the national lockdown would carry on indefinitely, we turned to our ETF Regional Maths Lead, Richard Kirtlan, and National Research Advisor, Cath Gladding, for help in refocussing our action research questions. Their patient advice and guidance were invaluable and I believe we are on track to carry out some robust research as a result. I would also like to thank my team of research leads and teachers and who have worked heroically in challenging circumstances to help rescue and fortify our projects.

Our mastery research interventions both relied predominantly on in-class interactions with learners and, with doubts remaining about whether we would work face-to-face with cohorts again until at least the post-Easter term, we chose to meet the challenge of virtual learning head-on and adapt our research to use it as a strength.

Our continuing mastery question changed focus from exploring methods of developing teachers to be able to use mastery via in-class CPD, to investigating whether mastery methods could be used in an online environment, both traditional and emerging. We aim to still explore the original CPD focus as a research objective and we feel that that the results of our action research will be current and hopefully of use to a wider audience.

Our new mastery question has not changed as significantly; we still plan to analyse and remediate learners’ weak or absent key stage 1 and 2 skills and measure the impact on their key stage 3 progress. We will, however, move from one-to-one and small group work carried out in class to using the ‘breakout’ feature of Zoom. We feel this may even benefit us with regard to learner engagement.

No doubt many centres have had to rethink their research projects in light of the pandemic, but as difficult as this has been, we believe the changes we have made are positive and will help mitigate the effects of the lockdown on our learners and ultimately improve our practice.

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