Made for students. By students.

Let's start with a little experiment. I want you to think of 5 things that you can't clean.

Please don't read on until you've managed that (or spent a few moments attempting it.)

The brain first of all went "clunk". Or "thunk" to quote Ian Gilbert. It then started spinning around looking for things that you can't clean (mud? dust? An atom! They're small...) I imagine that you tried finding "more of the same" once you found one. However, the point to be demonstrated is this: By changing the question to "think of 5 different things that you can't clean" your brain has to do the spinny-thing whilst it finds the first one, then it has to whirl around again looking for something totally different thus making you more creative. This is in addition to the already creative activity that I proposed.

Take this into the classroom. You have a maths class. What homework do you set them?

a) Ask them to copy 5 questions out of the textbook and then answer them at home.

b) Photocopy the text book page and ask them to attempt the 5 questions at home.

c) Give them a worksheet with 5 questions to then complete at home.

d) Pupils take textbook/homework book home and answer the questions in their exercise book, either copying the question down or not.

e) Ask them to set their own 5 questions and then answer them.

Spot the odd-one-out?

The first 4 make it easy for the teacher, ticking and flicking, correcting as they go. The better teachers do that great thing of saying to the pupil "You have 4 questions right. Find the incorrect one and correct it."

Let's explore the self-constructed questions option (Prof J.Mason Centre for Mathematics Education calls it "Another and another"). I employ this in my lessons. It is crucial to me that pupils are encouraged to ask questions, and not just see themselves as being there to only ever answer questions. By constructing questions they have to be aware of what they know and don't know. But most importantly they describe to you, the teacher, exactly what their confidence is like in that topic.As a general rule, the pupils become more adventurous with their question setting as they progress through the task. Ask any keen and confident Y7 pupil to set 5 column additions and the first 2 will be nice and safe. By the time they get to number 5, they are writing out 20 digit numbers and answering questions that are far more demanding than anything you would set them. It makes marking longer, there's no doubt, but the insight that it gives me into their maths world is immeasurable.

I like to combine it with another little trick. Knowing that Hattie reports that homework for secondary pupils needs to be brief (no longer that 5 minutes in length) and designed to let the pupils practise what they can do for it to be beneficial (effect size 0.59). It must also be marked. Therefore the success criteria that I set is as follows:

Pupils normally have to set and answer 5 questions (should take about 5-10 minutes). Their effort/motivation is then judged as follows. Using an scale of 1-5 (5 being high), if they present 5 questions answered I award a motivation score of 3 (done as expected.) Anything less receives a 1 or 2. If they do double, I award a motivation of 5. Anything between 5 and 10 questions set and answered receives a motivation 4. Using the idea of motivation as a multiplier (G.Petty) I then score their homework thus:

Marks obtained x Motivation shown.

Set 10 questions and get 1 correct, score=10
Set 2 questions and get both correct, score=2

This way I encourage pupils to set their own level of difficulty, to pursue high motivation and to then, when I mark it, look at where they can improve. I normally take the opportunity to set a "next level" question based on where they are now. That way, they can see where they are going to. I like to think of this as an after-shock homework.

If they have struggled to grasp the concept, I'll tailor my task feedback accordingly. By making the homework short I find that pupils engage in homework far, far more than if they are just given a worksheet. Quite often pupils will demonstrate more motivation at home than they do in class. I put this down to them answering their own questions, not mine. What's also great is that it stops the collusion aspect of homework. They can't hand in the same questions when they have to think up their own. If that happens, I guarantee that their detention is filled with probability questions, just to show how likely it was that they copied!

Admittedly the motivation multiplier can be used to some effect with the text book/worksheet homework.

However, you'll never quite know just how confident they feel about their learning.

Written by a teacher. For teachers.


  1. Thanks for this Craig

    Your point about students asking questions is a good one. Have you come across QTF?

    Also, I have a few ideas on this in my post on oracy:

    Cheers, David

  2. Thanks for your comments David. I am not aware of QTF as a named technique but I think I understand/live by it. I am a practitioner of P4C so developing oracy is a key goal of mine in class. The longest journey a sentence takes is from the brain to the page!



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