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When we talk about student ability levels, we often use terms such as low, medium and high ability. In itself a term like “low” conjures up images of students who do not have the capacity to learn as much as others. It implies that we as teachers have not much control over such a student’s learning, as if they are missing a “maths gene”. But what happens if a low ability student now understands that concept that was previously beyond their grasp. How do they go from being a low ability student in front of your very eyes to being a medium or high ability student, for that concept?

I find a more useful maths language term is “blockage”. Again we can categorise our students as low, medium or high block, but the terms “high” and “low” are now opposite  in meaning to our previous focus on “ability”. A new image reveals itself. If a student has a high blockage, it implies far more action on our part as teachers. There are multiple things that can be blocking this student, including emotional and physical as well as conceptual issues. How can we unblock this student? What strategies have we tried already? What other strategies may be effective? What language structures have I used? What terms does this student misunderstand? And if they are able to tackle a misunderstanding effectively and now “get” what it is we are talking about, they are unblocked. Their ability hasn’t magically jumped from low to medium or even high. The emphasis becomes on what we can do and provide as teachers to remove each student’s blockage.

A medium block student has several misunderstandings and after some one-to-one questioning and discussion with you or fellow students they may discover their incorrect thinking. A low block student may have just one or two misunderstandings and can more quickly see how to change their thinking.

It’s a little bit crazy, but I think of blockages as transparent clingwrap. Imagine your students are sitting in front of you with different layers of clingwrap covering their eyes. They can all see something, but those with only one or two sheets of the clingwrap, your low block students, can see most clearly and can see perfectly once those few sheets are removed. Everyone has the possibility of understanding more. It does not mean that your high block students WILL understand, but the language of blockages gives us more confidence that they are capable of learning.

There is no maths gene that some students have and others don’t. What can we all do to help each student learn more effectively?