UKEdMag: Creating Wonder in High Prior Attainers by @mathsmuse

High prior attainers. Gifted and talented. High Achievers. The students that are aiming for the very top grades at GCSE, that we’re all determined to keep at A level for our subject. We put on trips. We run extracurricular clubs. We bring out the “Challenge Questions”. We create peer mentoring. But one thing we often neglect is developing their sense of curiosity in our subject, developing that sense of wonder and awe for the best little bits, that need to actually just know how/ why/where/what is going on with this little bit of your subject.

This article originally appeared in Issue 50 of the UKEdMagazine. Click here to freely view.

This is where the old classic “Know, Wonder, Learned” comes in. You’ve probably heard of it or seen it used as a nice starter/plenary. It is, after all, a great way to gauge prior learning and progress on a topic. What it can also be is a way to put challenge in your lesson, develop critical thinking skills, and show your passion for your subject. Focus on that word “Wonder”. It can mean “Well, I wonder what’s for dinner,” but it can also be used in awe and wonder. I think that’s a powerful combination. Students aren’t just talking about what they want to know but what they “wonder” about the topic.

I did this as a starter consistently for about a month and a half with a top set year 8 (and a few times with a bottom set year 8 that I saw less frequently) in their mathematics lessons. I put up a slide containing only the title, learning objective, and the three success criteria – at my school we called them bronze, silver and gold. Students then had 5-10 minutes to write down anything they knew about the words on the board and anything they wondered about them. Then we spent a bit of lesson time (5-10 minutes) going through the wonders. This sounds like a huge chunk of lesson time, I agree. But it served two important functions: it made sure that all the keywords and ideas were covered, and it hooked the students into the topic in a way I haven’t seen replicated without a lot of preparation time for the teacher.

It started out, as all things do, a little rocky. We got the important wonders – “What does [word] mean?” – and the cheekier wonders – “When will I ever need to know this?”. We covered the important things that they needed to know. And after a week or so, we started to get really interesting wonders: “Can you translate a shape in 3D? In 4D? What is 3D really? What about 4D? 1D? 0D?” The sort of questions you go to university to explore. The students started to pick up on relationships between topics we’d done before because they were actively thinking about the topic and what interesting questions they could ask. It almost became competitive; who could come up with the most interesting wonder?

This is all well and good, you might say. You have the engagement, but do you have the learning? Well, yes, actually. The fact that the lesson was driven by their questions for the first quarter of the lesson meant that I was able to adapt my teaching very effectively to their prior knowledge and that students felt secure in what they knew. The “know” portion of the lesson acted as retrieval practice, strengthening the facts in their memory. The “wonder” portion, where they shared, was actually the main teaching portion of the lesson as one of the wonders would invariably be “how do you do it?” The lesson was shaped by my students and the teaching was demanded of me by their own curiosity. Test results, in our roughly 3-weekly assessments, were up and the proportion of the students exceeding target grades improved dramatically. Most importantly, the students started to think of themselves as mathematicians.

We paired this with “Key Word Register”. A simple idea to keep key words being used and to encourage students to look back for key words. When your name is called, you say a key word. If someone thinks you don’t know what it means, they shout “challenge” and you have to define it. If you define it correctly, you get one point. As time went on, between the “wonder” and this, students were spending time outside of lessons finding out the answers to wonders and finding more and more obscure and interesting key words. I doubt you’ll find many Year 8 classes that have such a secure understanding of bounded infinities (a key word one student found, was challenged on, failed the challenge and went home and delved into), or matrices.

Between these two activities, the engagement and attainment of pupil premium students soared. Students who were disengaged in other lessons were focussed and doing extra work just to be part of the experience. I found the use of these activities to be transformative to my class. I haven’t used either of them for a few months, as too much repetition can get stale, but you can still feel the hunger to learn. They still ask fantastic questions and search for interesting key words, because we’ve shown them how valuable and interesting it is to do so.

Next year I would love to start wonder journals, where students can write down their wonders for every subject. I’d hope it could lead to students making those cross-curricular links that would strengthen their understanding. They had already started to do that just in mathematics lessons, so I can only imagine how powerful this would be if it was adopted more holistically.


Caroline @mathsmuse is a KS3 mathematics coordinator in an Inner London all-girls school with a passion for developing mathematical thinking and education research. Find out more at mathsmuse.wordpress.com.

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The Editorial Account of UKEdChat, managed by editor-in-chief Colin Hill, with support from Martin Burrett from the UKEd Magazine. Pedagogy, Resources, Community.

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