Curriculum Aspirations

We continue working on curriculum matters, after testing some preliminary materials in the field in Greece. We have an urgent need to confirm matters with our Maths and Science materials, but the overriding priority must still remain English. This is because the English curriculum will dictate the format and vocabulary to be used at different stages in the Maths and Science curriculum.

Good Maths learning requires pupils to learn calculations. But it also requires them to learn problem solving, where they learn to apply calculations into real contexts. It is possible to learn how to do calculations in a foreign language, as basic calculations can be done using physical objects to demonstrate concepts.

Matters become more complicated with higher level calculations, when there is carrying of digits between columns, or a moving of elements of the number, as that starts to require theoretical explanation and comprehension.

However problem solving is totally impossible without a sound grasp of language as the problem has to be stated, or described by using language. It has been noted for years in England that there is a degree of correlation between students English skills and their Maths skills. This is because the higher level Maths is tested via problem stated in English. Children who do not have the English skills to access the Maths question will therefore fail to answer the question correctly. We have often seen children in English schools who can do very sophisticated maths once they understand what the question is, but they cannot always access the English necessary to show what they can do with the Maths. This is a problem for some English speaking children in English schools. It is an even greater problem for refugee children in Emergency Education schools.

For example, a question like 2+2= can be asked and answered without much English. But an equivalent question stated in a problem solving format might look as follows: ‘if there are two birds in a pond and two more birds land in the pond, how many birds are there?’ This is essentially the same question as 2+2= but it is stated in a very different way which requires linguistic skills to access. The maths is very simple, but the complexity of the English used to state the problem makes it a more complex mathematical ‘problem solving’ question.

We have seen some well meaning but mistaken refugee education which focuses on just calculations. This is because it is relatively easy to print out sheets of sums like ‘2+2=’ and it is easy to get the children answering questions like this when they have little English. There is definite value in doing some of this kind of work, as it develops fluency with calculations and the children learn to do them faster.

But calculations must always be seen as the first step towards the higher level skill of problem solving. Most of the maths used in daily life and higher level studies is maths to solve a problem. This means that effective Maths education of children must include problem solving. This is as true for children being educated in mainsteam schools as it is for children being educated in refugee Emergency Education centres.

It is difficult to develop the maths problem solving skills of children who have limited English, as they just do not have the English skills necessary to access the problem solving questions. So, we must design the problem solving Maths questions carefully so that they use the English vocabulary which the children already have.

This means that the developing of a Maths curriculum and lesson content needs to be carried out as a layer on top of the English curriculum. Doing this ensures that we can limit the amount of new English vocabulary encountered in Maths lessons, so that the children can remain focused upon learning Maths in Maths lessons (and not become focused instead upon learning English vocabulary of Maths problems in their Maths lessons).

What we are trying to achieve is the quite simple and common sense principle that the children should be learning English in English lessons and Maths in Maths lessons (even if the Maths lessons happen to be delivered in English).

This approach adds a level of complexity to the design of a Maths course for refugee children. It is a level of complexity which is not usually found in UK Maths thinking and planning. The complexity of the necessary Maths planning is compounded as the expression of the course needs to depend upon the underlying English course, and we have not been able to find an off-the-shelf English course which does what we need.

So we find ourselves as teachers now thinking about planning an English course which will be a course in itself, but also a foundation layer for the Maths course too.

We are also giving thought to a Science curriculum, but science is at least as language ‘heavy’ as Maths, and so it requires the same kind of very careful thought about its content and order of instruction. This is because an effective Science course must develop scientific skills and concepts in a logical way, rather than (or even ‘as well as’) just teaching Scientific English vocabulary.

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