Multi-Age/Ability Math at North Saanich Middle School is Making Sense

Three years ago the teachers of North Saanich Middle School committed to a multi-age grade configuration structure and philosophy for all grade 6/7 students. Having just moved into a beautiful new building our staff was willing to try something new. One of the many changes we made was going to 9 divisions of grade 6/7 multi-age classrooms and 5 straight grade 8 classes. There were many significant benefits of us going to this model for all our students. Most of the benefits were noticeable immediately and were significant in promoting a positive school climate and student engagement in their learning. We did have one significant area of concern: Math! Teachers of grade 6/7 classrooms were struggling with the idea of teaching math to the diversity of a multi-age classroom.

Initially, we split our classes into grade 6 and 7 math cohorts and teachers swapped students so that they only had students of one grade level. It was the only core academic class that our teachers did not teach to all their students. That first year, it became obvious to us that this was defeating the purpose of going to multi-age classrooms. Teachers wanted to truly understand their students' learning, including how they were doing in Math and they wanted to see their students progress over the two years that they were in their class (this year 98% of our grade 7 students looped with their current teacher).

This was not how we were teaching our other subjects. The NSMS staff was already committed and believed in the philosophies of Universal Design for Learning and Differentiation of Learning in teaching the Humanities classes, and they already had a strong foundation in teaching multi-age learners. Yet in math, we found ourselves teaching in a more traditional stand and deliver model followed by drilling the students with the same math problems.

The transition to embracing multi-age math started slowly. A small cohort of the teachers advocated to keep all their students rather than split up the grade 6's and 7's. They slowly started to find ways to meet the learning math needs of their students. They spent lots of time collaborating about ideas for teaching and assessing math and the benefits of teaching mathematics to their students' ability level. As this cohort started to find success, the rest of the teachers began to ask questions and started using some of the philosophies and structures in their own classrooms. It soon became obvious to everyone that straight classrooms were just as diverse as multi-age rooms. In reality, we are teaching multi-ability classrooms.

This year our entire grade 6/7 staff are teaching multi-age/ability math classes and they are all very pleased with the results. It is a philosophy that we are embracing and it has led to many positives for both students and teachers. It should be noted that we are not using a program. Each of our nine teachers instruct and set up their math lessons differently, but the common core structures are the same in all our rooms. The three things that all our teachers do in common is:

Start lessons with a whole class math warm up activity. Spend directed time each class practising math fundamentals. Provide opportunities for their students to work at math at their level.

We are currently assessing and watching our student's success in math closely. We are collecting and looking at the data in two different ways. One is that we are looking for academic success from our students in math. The second is that we are looking to see student engagement, confidence and a growth mindset about learning math. We are just starting to compare our new math results to our baseline data. We are tracking our report card marks, grade 7 FSA results and the Gauss math scores. These results will take time to collect and analyze. We hope that we see our high end students take off and that our struggling math learners develop the core fundamentals that they need to be successful in secondary school and in life. Our recent analysis of our FSA data is positive, but with many of our families opting their children out of these assessments we are currently focusing on other forms of data. Our challenge will be to start tracking our criterion based assessments.

The early indicators of improved student engagement is very exciting. At North Saanich we believe in having a Growth Mindset and having students work to the best of their ability. Effort and work habits are more important than letter grades. We know that students that work hard and challenge themselves will continue to improve and learn. Our job is to provide rigour in mathematics for our students at their ability level. Here are some of our results on engagement. In our recent Tell Them From Me survey we asked two specific math questions on engagement and here are our results:

Students were asked: “Are you finding math at school...”
Too Easy – 12%
Just Right – 52%
Challenging – 27%
Too Difficult – 9%
Note: Data includes grade 6- 8 results.

Students were asked: “When in Math class are you engaged in learning?” Not very often (0-25% of the time) – 6% Some of the time (26-50%) - 10% Most of the time (51-75%) - 40% Most to all of the time 976-100%) - 44% Note: Data includes grade 6- 8 results.

Even more interesting might be the fact that we have not had one office referral from a grade 6/7 math class this year.

Additionally, last year we started to offer students the opportunity to participate in the Gauss Math Assessment from the University Waterloo. Last year we had 16 students in grade 6/7 choose to participate. All were from multi-age/ ability math classrooms. Our average score of 103.3/150 was above the internationally average of 101.8/150. This year with all our grade 6/7 students learning in multi-age math classrooms we have 88 students registered to write the Gauss Math Assessments. And finally, we decided to create a visual document of our progress to get some qualitative data. We interviewed the teachers and students and asked them what they thought about their engagement in math. This has given us positive data and insight into the math learning and engagement of our students. The students and staff responses to our questions positively reinforced our belief that we are improving student engagement, confidence and interest in math. We have used this video at the school level to drive our discussions on Math as well as the value of looping in our school configuration model.

At North Saanich we are excited about math! We believe in a balanced developmental approach to teaching math and our staff and students feel that multi-age age math makes sense at NSMS. If you are interested in contacting North Saanich Middle School - northsaanich_admin@sd63.bc.ca