A few weeks ago I was discussing the strategies I was implementing for low ability students in a small, but challenging class. Challenging not through behaviour, but because their skills, even in their first year at secondary school, were way behind their peers. I’m green lit to take it slow with them, and so we’re less pressured by the constraints of the curriculum, at least for now. So we’re working on things that should already be secure, but clearly aren’t. Number bonds to ten, visualising and comparing quantities, the rules of addition and subtraction, and we’ve also spent a hefty amount of time exploring multiplication in depth. I was getting a little frustrated with the fact that one or two of the students were making very little gains with their times tables, because, as they admitted themselves, they simply won’t sit down and learn them at home. Or they just cannot recall them no matter how much time they spend on them (seemingly). We of course practice them in lessons (often!) but time and time again this barrier would arise.

It was pointed out to me at this point that there is another possibility. Give them a calculator. My instinct was to protest – of course they can use calculators when they NEED them, for calculations that require them, but for simple multiplication and addition? It’s defeatest! It sets a precedent and tells them that it’s ok not to learn a lot of the things I want them to learn to better understand what’s happening with numbers when we manipulate them. I was encouraged to still persue the memorisation of times tables and similar things, involve parents, subject workshops etc, as, put simply, I’d asked them to do it so therefore they needed to persist in trying to do it – but then I got myself into a conversation I wasn’t expecting. Would it be so bad to use calculators for the majority of lessons?

My immediate thought was that there was a non-calculator paper in Year 11, and without proper training etc, they wouldn’t stand a chance! But it was pointed out to me that whilst there is a single non-calculator paper, there are now 2 calculator papers. If then, the focus is shifted more towards using a calculator efficiently in lessons, could we in fact make bigger strides with these students (we’re still talking primarily about the weakest students, those who have made barely any progress since arriving at primary school). Historically, in every school I’ve worked in, these students almost always end up with very low grades at GCSE. Is it possible that a higher emphasis on using a calculator could in fact improve their chances of getting higher grades? Their confidence would certainly shoot up, and their willingness to try difficult things would undoubtedly improve too.

Of course many aspects of their knowledge of mathematics would be somewhat neglected (but not altogether, there would still be some emphasis on non-calculator skills, just a shift in the balance). But if we can prepare them much better for 2/3 of their final assessment, there may well be an increased proporition of higher grades in a few years.Of course it would be naive to assume that just because a student has a tool that does sums for them, they’ll do better. They must obviously have an understanding of what the sums are, what they’re being asked to do etc, and being able to spot errors has always been an observed problem in my experience (ie, students dont spot anything wrong with anything when they’re relying on their trustworthy calculator – “The calculator says it’s right, so you’re wrong sir” is something I’ve heard many times).

It goes against my instincts to try this approach, but perhaps this change in exam structure may in fact be a trigger for different approaches when trying to work with our weakest students.