Monday, 11 September 2017

The dreaded first week of teaching; Get a headstart

A long time coming, and a long time for people to wait for me to update the blog posts. It's been a wild and bumpy ride over the last few months, as such, my blog has suffered as a result. I started the blog feeling so passionate and so pleased with it's progress, however days turned to weeks then to months and I still didn't have the time to focus on it fully and give it the care and attention it deserved.

What have I been up to? I actually have been busy addressing other parts of my personal life in the form of a new relationship (oooooo, check you!) as well as taking on a new hobby; boxing. Boxing for me has been a lifesaver when it comes to how I deal with and handle stress within the classroom, it's comforting to know that once a week I can work it out and push myself to my absolute limit to take the edge of my time in the classroom. I took part in a charity boxing match raising over £150 for Cancer Research UK. I guess if there is any excuse for my lack of blogging, it's probably that.

Well, at least I was keeping fit! (Image courtesy of

Back to it and we are back from summer holiday! The seemingly short break has brought us into a dreary and cold September. Students are buzzing through the hallways and creating havoc within the FE classroom but today was a landmark for the majority of them within our college. It would be their first lesson of Maths within our setting. Initially as I went into each class today, a sea of subdued faces greeted me as I wandered around the room. It got me thinking about how I would share this feeling with others, and what other teachers within this environment would be feeling over the next few days and weeks.

I am not going to lie, I hate delivering introduction lessons to any group, it is the bane of my life. It's so routine and dull, I could have joined the students as I was paddling through the PowerPoint slides describing what their year in maths is going to look like, a lot of confused faces when I said that they would either be Level 1 or 2 functional skills (but I've already got a 2?!)

I thought about ideas that worked well and things that I have considered over the last few hours that have made my life a lot easier in the long term. I considered different things that a lot of people would want from us as a maths department as well as what the students would want from us as their lecturers. There are several suggestions that I am going to share with you today in the hope that you give them a try and let me know how you get on.

Another list, oh how I've missed these:

1) Print all your registers before your day begins

First time I tried this, going to do this every year from now on. The value in having a list in front of you showing who you are expecting is invaluable when meeting the students for the first time. Unfortunately due to high volumes of maths students, we cannot get everyone enrolled onto their programme on time, so there may be instances where people need adding to groups or taking off them. The list also feeds into the third practice I tried today with a lot of success.
For more effect, amend any online registers at the end of your day, add notes on the bottom of it regarding behaviours, attitudes of new students etc.

2) Give out colour co-ordinated folders/books

Split them by colour, it may save time searching for files (Image courtesy of
Now, this sparks from last year when I remember having to deal with new student groups all coming in and spending the first 15 minutes of my lesson searching for folders. Little A4 cardboard wallets conveniently come in a variety of colours. What I was able to do was split all my groups with colour, so any student who attends with me at 9am on Monday will be in the blue group, 10am Green group etc. 
I am hoping as all the students should remain within the same group (positive thinking here) then nobody should have any issues finding their folder in due course. It has been really helpful for me to organise where students are going and what they are doing too, I'll let you know how it works after 6 weeks

3) Talk to students individually about their potential EAA's

Now, if you want to show you care in this environment, you need to get to know your students learning needs. This practice benefits your classroom twofold, not only do you get to know of any needs that need addressing, but you can also show your students that you are genuinely interested in their educational experience. Take the list you printed with you as you are doing this, it is going to serve as a document that should start to create your class profile (unless you get names and groups before they start, if so, share how your college do it!)

4) Start your class profile folder now

Get organised now and save yourself a headache (Image courtesy of

Don't delay, start it now and start building up your profiles over the next few weeks. Even if your groups change massively in that time, just know that you were on the ball and felt on top of it all when you started. The first half term is going to be a tough one so the more organised you are now, the better off you are going to be down the line.
My folder is currently split by days, as I teach an evening class of adult learners, I have a separate division for them, any other information can be placed in here as time goes on so see it as a go to folder for any person who may need to find out more about your classes.

Here's a few suggestions for how you should start the year, I would love to hear how you got on within your first few days, please feel free to contact me through this blog or through my Twitter profile (@feguidebook) where we can discuss and share best practice across the whole of FE.

Only 29 teaching days until half term!


Saturday, 22 April 2017

How to teach Functional Skills Maths: The FEMaths Approach

As someone who has taught Functional Skills Maths for the last 2 years and has managed the course itself for the majority of that time, I feel that I have managed to grasp some concepts and some best practice for teaching this subject in a Further Education environment, or at the very least, I hope that I am doing the best by my students within this respect.

For those colleagues who are teaching in secondary and considering the shift towards teaching further education mathematics, Functional Skills can be a rewarding programme to teach for young people. I would stress some restraint before thinking that it is an easier version of GCSE delivery for older students, Functional Skills (especially at Level's 1 and 2) will challenge your students in their mathematic ability and how they apply mathematic concepts to real life situations. An employer values functional skills qualifications as they build in problem solving skills alongside the basic mathematics that the majority of the qualification covers within a workplace setting.

Functional Skills in English, Maths and ICT were originally introduced in education from 2012, preceding it was a lengthy review of how young people achieve qualifications within these areas that differentiate from GCSE to apply contextual problem solving skills that employers value. Many major awarding bodies now accredit these qualifications within educational centres with many taking steps towards flexibility for apprenticeships and having their own take on what their questions are structured like.

Students are just embarking on their Maths journey with you, treat with care (Image Courtesy of

Functional Skills qualifications map onto the Adult Core Curriculum areas within English and Maths (The maths one can be found here for download) where differentiated levels exist from Entry Level 1 to Level 2. The majority of students within an FE college will be working towards Level 1 or 2 as a condition of their funding, however adult based learning centres and other providers may offer entry level qualifications to encourage adult learners to address embedded issues within different subject areas and build confidence in these skills.

As a manager of this course, it is incredibly important to me that functional skills delivery is not just a "duller and dumbed down" GCSE course but rather an exploratory educational experience for learners where confidence within these skills enable learners to pursue their chosen career paths confident in their application of their newfound abilities. As much as we like to teach in this environment, in the FE college environment, you have to build a resilience due to the type of learner you are likely to encounter completing these qualifications. I am going to share with you some great advice that I've learned over my experience of managing and delivering these important qualifications.

1) The worksheet should support the learning, not guide it

Your learners adapt and are constantly responding to things around them, they will need engagement to build a resilience to mathematics delivery from their previous education provider. A great example of this is how you deliver the skills to your learners, start with the basics and ensure security on them (there will be high fliers, so just be sure to challenge them a little more) before advancing onto more complex examples. Once you have built a solid foundation for students to work with, a worksheet could be implemented to encourage students to direct themselves.
I am not a fan of the worksheet (unless it's one I've made myself) but that doesn't mean I don't agree with their usage, if you intend to deliver these skills, I would recommend avoiding them for the first few lessons. From a psychological standpoint, your students have already formed an opinion conditioned from secondary school of what a maths lesson is like, try to show them something a little more inspired.

Those poor trees! Give your students something unique and inspired (Image Courtesy of

2) Examples, Examples, Examples

As you grow and develop as a lecturer, you will be able to grasp onto a variety of real-life situations where the students can apply their functional skills learning, there are some great contextual books available for specific areas to work through but I would consider developing your knowledge from other areas to gain an idea of how you can embed that within your delivery.
Best practice would call for you to observe other colleagues, but let's face it, you are going to struggle with your own time restraints to get this done effectively. Instead, I would think of examples from your own life, I regularly talk to students about having a mobile phone contract (the majority of them do as well) and we discuss all sorts of mathematical ideas (interest rates, discounts, percentages, fractions) which can be scaffolded across a whole lesson, more often then not, I get questions from students about something they aren't sure about, one of my students felt comfortable showing me what their payslip looked like and what it all means, engage them with examples they can relate to and it may help it stick when they leave your class.

3) Scaffold the questions to gain results

A big lengthy question on a certain topic is how they will be assessed in functional skills, the exams are made up of 3 parts to form the overall functional skills picture so we need to consider each part equally to ensure the best result for your learners. The majority of students really struggle with scale drawing tasks and how these relate to something they are likely to see.
Start with the basic skills and then address questions from there, start with a simple calculation and talk about it's importance for working out the next question. An example of this may be working out the cost of a meal out for each person, you may start with 5 friends going to dinner and what they had, you could then discuss the idea of tipping at a certain percentage (extra Equality and Diversity points if you discuss tipping systems in different countries) and then splitting the final bill. React to your students, if they are struggling, go for a smaller example to develop the skills then expand from there. You'll be surprised by the end of the lesson when a student who struggled to work out a percentage can tell you the cost of an evening out and give themselves a budget development lesson to boot. They may think of you when they have to financially manage themselves one day.

How do you expect learners to step into a maths problem without the proper skillset to hand? (Image Courtesy of

4) You will need to develop learners English skills

English within functional skills Maths exams is vital for ensuring learners are able to access the material that is presented to them. Some questions rely on students to pick information out of tables which are complex to gain an insight into something which they may have never heard about before. Some of my students struggled with working out the running costs of a washing machine, naturally, they've probably never thought about how they work or that it costs a certain percentage of a water or electricity bill so the more you can get them developing their English skills the better.
Your students will need to remember to read the question fully before attempting it. Some students read it, then straight away jump to "I don't know" like a safety blanket, it's what they are used to doing so you need to show some restraint and allow them to talk out their thoughts about the question. I ask questions such as "What is the situation about", "What would you do in that situation yourself", "What methods could we use here". The students we work with won't attempt it in fear of being wrong, but it is the building of resilience to try mathematical methods that will help them when they leave functional skills behind and step into the workplace for potentially the first time.

5) Finally, Praise positive efforts and encourage methods over answers

How many of your students say "Is this right?" and look for validation of whether the final answer is correct? How many check their work before asking for advice? What proportion of your students need re-assurance that they are doing the right thing before even attempting it?
The majority of functional skills students in an FE college will struggle to try in fear of being wrong, it is human nature to think that we want to be seen in the most positive way possible and our own self-image is important to our peers. I have students in some classes who won't even try because they are afraid of getting it wrong, and if they get it wrong, they get angry and the usual rhetoric appears
"I've always been bad at this" "I'm going to give up" "I don't need this anyway"
My advice, never tell a student if they are correct, instead ask this question "explain how you did it", not only does this apply the student to consider their method to gain maximum marks, but it also reinforces their skills within maths to develop their learning. As education providers, we all know that if you can explain something to someone else, it strengthens your understanding of the material itself, so get your students to teach you. Have a bit of fun with it, I say the phrase "Explain like I'm five" to get through their explanation of it, you can also expand this to popular characters "Explain it to Homer Simpson anybody?"

Give your students reason to feel good, and don't forget to laugh sometimes too (Image Courtesy of

I hope you've gained something from this long blog post about functional skills, I would love to hear others opinions on what they do in their functional skills classrooms to encourage learning of these core skills. Please leave a comment below or follow me on Twitter (@feguidebook) with more suggestions as well as ideas for other areas you would like to see covered in future posts.

Enjoy your weekend teachers, and if none of your students have said to you already, I hope you've had an enjoyable Easter Break!

- Matt