GCSEs, The Staffroom - opinion

How to relieve Reflective Achievement Deficit Syndrome

Maths GCSE re-sit students don't need the subject to be more 'relevant', says Tom Broomhead. They need us to understand their specific context and needs

Maths GCSE re-sit students don't need the subject to be more 'relevant', says Tom Broomhead. They need us to understand their specific context and needs

30 Jan 2023, 5:00

Since Rishi Sunak’s proposal to extend post-16 maths to all, it seems everyone is reflecting on their own journey (or lack of) to maths enlightenment. Those of us who teach post-16 GCSE re-sit courses are practiced in enduring tales of contextualisation and how maths in colleges should teach mortgages and basic finances. But after many thousands of hours delivering resit maths lessons, I find the challenges GCSE maths resit learners face simply don’t echo these concerns.

Resit learners are enrolled onto maths courses because they have not achieved the level of maths proficiency determined by government. Their experiences are unique to this situation. So while I agree with the prime minister’s policy, it’s unlikely to succeed if it remains shrouded with talk of low pass rates and disenfranchised learners. When existing narratives of contextualisation and pedagogy are applied to this group, we too often observe negative results.

Consider a population divided into two groups, A and B. Group A are literate in a particular discipline, and group B are not. Logically, it is members of group A who become experts and teachers and whose advice and opinions about what they learned, how they learned it and in what context become valued. But their experiences are rooted in their history of belonging in group A.

When group A members ‘tell’ group B members the reasons why group A are so great – including the contexts and methods involved in making group A great – they are often alarmed that group B do not respond positively. In fact, group B members often rebel against this, sometimes angrily.

I observe this frequently in maths teaching. Conferences and training events are run by those in group A and discuss at length contextualisation and methods that worked for other members of group A. Yet our mission is to unlock group B!

We should focus on the context, not mortgages or tax returns

It seems group A members are more comfortable considering group B membership as a problem to solve. To that end, I propose a diagnosis of Reflective Achievement Deficit Syndrome – RADS, with the following characteristics:

  • A lack of belief in one’s own ability, which prevents the individual from responding to conventional learning and reflection processes.
  • Conscious or unconscious ‘blocking’ of learning and reflection processes that are effective with those not exhibiting RADS, rendering them ineffective.
  • Development of symptoms that can be attributed to socio-economic status, (similarly to self-efficacy issues as observed by Mingming Zhou and others), but can also relate to poor relationships with previous teachers and professionals and previous trauma (including the trauma incurred from repeated perceived failures).

Often, a feeling of success or achievement can combat RADS, but this can be hard to achieve or sustain. To do that, teaching and guidance needs to occur in the context of a RAD environment, rather than using conventional contextual learning and pedagogy.

With regards to post-16 maths resit courses, we need to think very carefully about how we contextualise our subject. Repeating how useful maths will be to them in the future only disenfranchises them further because grade 4 appears out of reach.

Instead, we should explain to learners that society needs them rather than the other way round. We need our resit learners to succeed for us all to benefit, and making that explicit foregrounds that they have a worth in the world. This is much more likely to be conducive than telling them they will never progress in life if they do not pass.

Likewise, delivering maths in the context of their elective courses or real-world application reinforces the RADS. They want to succeed in their new exciting course, not feel tarnished by their perceived failure in maths.

For re-sit learners, we should ditch the idea of ‘relevance’ and focus on the context of the RAD environment, not mortgages or tax returns. Often, the only context that matters for learners with RADS is success in the exam; anything else we bring to bear is bound to be limited by our group A blinkers and risks reinforcing previous traumas or socio-economic conditions.

It feels as if we have a huge opportunity ahead of us, and I hope it is a time to reflect and consider alternative solutions.

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One comment

  1. Makes perfect sense. The fear of failure can prevent winning.

    Teaching about mortgages and tax returns might be a useful mathematical example to use in the classroom, but when it is politicised and dictated a certain amount of inherent judgement comes with it. It’s probably symptomatic of bean counters running the show and focusing so hard on the numbers, they forgot about the people.