Overcoming tumbleweed in virtual maths lessons

Four maths websites which have changed my practice both online and in the classroom

Hetta McCabe

KS4 Maths Lead

The students in our school aren’t typical teenagers when it comes to technology. Yes, they almost solely communicate on Snapchat and snigger when I refer to ‘texting’, but unlike many students across the country, ours have consistently used online technology, educational websites and Google Classroom as part of their daily school life. 

As a school with ‘integrated technology’ as one of its design principles, the challenge to adjust to online learning was, anecdotally, smoother than most: starting live lessons on Google Hangouts was hitch-free, I had a visualiser for modelling, and most students were keen. However, within a couple of weeks, the holes rapidly formed, until it felt a bit like teaching in a black hole: a minority of ‘active’ students, with the majority reluctant to un-mute or contribute, a minority of students typing their answers in the chat function followed by a wave of others seemingly copying those answers. The tumbleweed grew so big, it filled the black hole. Who understood what? Which students were even sat at their device?  I certainly had no idea. 

To bridge the void between me and the students who I used to spend more time with than my own family, the following four websites have been a game-changer. I used all of these websites pre-lockdown, but certainly not fully, preferring in fact to fall back on paper and pen for both me and the students. In fact, I’d go as far to say that my knowledge of what individual students can and can’t do is possibly now more granular and accurate than it was before March.

Dr Frost

Optimising for online learning: 

Dr Frost has had the greatest impact on my online lessons. I created bespoke, well-sequenced ‘worksheets’ which span a variety of A01/2/3 style Qs. This was liberating, as I love to tamper with textbook/resource sequencing. The students then complete the worksheet, and as clear as day, I can see in real-time who is answering which question, whether it was right, or what their wrong answer was. The Google hangout remained live for questions from students, or interventions from me in response to wrong answers. “Miss this was fun, can we do it again” said one of my Year 12s; students seemed motivated by the pursuit of green answers and the accountability of my live-view. 

Taking it back to the physical classroom: 

Having returned to school in July (for some socially distanced small group work) and now to full classrooms in September, I can confirm that the format worked just as well in the classroom. Using a visualiser for modelling/interventions, combined with Dr Frost, I am able to stay at a safe distance from the students yet feel like I have a firmer grasp of each individual’s work given I can’t see their books.


Mr Hegarty

Optimising for online learning: 

Mr Hegarty has been a central part of our students’ homework routine, with students completing tasks which relate to the previous topic learnt in class. With less contact time, yet still endeavouring to continue with curriculum coverage, I finally made best use of Mr Hegarty’s unparalleled expertise: stellar explanations and modelling.  For the first time in my seven years of teaching, I was running a genuinely flipped classroom with year 9. During our weekly session, we then put the core techniques they’d learnt with Mr Hegarty into practice on more extended problems. 

Taking it back to the physical classroom: 

A previous headteacher of mine (reputedly) said that there was no need for maths teachers when there is Mr Hegarty. This is a fairly depressing and damning view of the complexity of teaching maths. A student only exposed to the bitesize chunks of Hegarty’s A01 style questions misses out on the central pursuit of maths: making connections across the subjects and solving rich maths problems. Whilst I’m probably not ready to fully hand over the reins of all key skill teaching to Mr Hegarty, as brilliant as he is, I do wonder if students spent their independent learning time learning, rather than recapping, the keys skills it could free up lesson time for the proper fun maths problems!

Diagnostic Questions

Optimising for online learning: 

It’s almost impossible to talk about maths pedagogy and resourcing without Craig Barton popping up in conversation. His multiple choice Diagnostic Questions get to the heart of the misconceptions which are rife within maths. Without student working or explanation, his clever questions helped me identify holes in their understanding. 

Taking it back to the physical classroom: 

Although I used his brilliant questions in nearly every lesson, I did not use it digitally: a few questions projected on the board, a quick vote using mini white boards or fingers, followed by explanations from me and the students. Teaching virtually forced me to fully utilise this powerful website. Students answered the quizzes online instead and provided a written justification for their choice (cue revelation to teacher). The rich data is synthesized and has enabled me to quickly identify groups of students who have similar misconceptions.



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