How can you best support an exceptionally able pupil?

Sometimes you will teach a pupil who you might describe as being exceptionally able or enthusiastic about mathematics.  This is an exciting challenge, but it can also be a difficult one - particularly when maths teachers are already short of time.

Shouldn’t we just accelerate the pupil up a year?

The general view is that accelerating pupils is not usually the best course of action. One obvious reason for this is that there is the danger that the pupil rushes through their exams and is left in a kind of limbo where they have finished everything too early, given the fact that most pupils aren’t ready to move to university before they are 18. 

Shouldn’t we care most about the pupils who are struggling?

When it comes to league tables, it is the children in the middle who will make a difference to the ranking of a school. On the other hand, a good school should always care about all its pupils, including the very weakest and the most able. Being a high achiever in mathematics doesn’t mean that the pupil is emotionally mature and being presented with work that is too easy can lead to disillusionment and a waste of talent.  This type of pupil will need a lot of support.

Team effort

Supporting an exceptionally able mathematician shouldn’t just be down to the efforts of an individual classroom teacher. The head of the Mathematics department should be working with their department and involving the child’s parents as well as the pupil themselves.   Supporting a gifted mathematician should be a team effort and there are also lots of organisations outside of the school such as the UKMT which can help.

Helping all your high achieving pupils

Most of the ideas here will be suitable for all your high achieving pupils. Having an exceptionally able pupil can sometimes prompt a school to improve provision for the whole of their top set.

Extra / Different Work

You will certainly want to provide some extra work, both to stretch your pupil, but also because they will work at a faster rate than other class members.  It is tempting to find the longest worksheet you can but try and put yourself in your pupil’s shoes. Would you want to expand 200 more double brackets, all at the same level of difficulty?  Try and find problems which broadly stick to the curriculum but present problems in a challenging or more open-ended way.  You might give these extra problems in class or as homework.  Here are two great places to find questions:

UKMT past questions: http://www.ukmt-resources.org.uk/index-tr.html

NRICH website: https://nrich.maths.org/

Your school might also consider offering an extra qualification in maths at GCSE level such as the Level 2 AQA Certificate in Further Maths.  

Competitions

Another good way to stretch your high ability pupils is by entering them into a UKMT competition.  There are now more competitions than ever, including team competitions which can be hugely enjoyable for pupils. If pupils do well, then they can enter progressively more difficult challenges, all the way up to the British Mathematical Olympiad.  The UKMT also offers a mentoring scheme where pupils are assigned a mathematical mentor. Take a look at this blog article for more ideas about maths competitions.

Online maths magazines

Consider introducing your older pupils to Plus Magazine which contains articles on hundreds of different mathematical topics, many of which are not normally taught in schools.  It is also worth looking at mathscareers.org.uk where they can read about mathematical role models, enter competitions and read articles about where maths is used in the real world.

Popular maths books

There are more and more popular maths books being published all the time. If your pupil is a confident reader, then they can learn about some of the most exciting mathematical discoveries in an accessible way.  NRICH have a page where suitable popular maths books are listed.

Trips and visits

Get out of the classroom as much as you can, visit universities, science museums, go on maths trails, or visit a Maths Inspiration talk. Seeing real live talking mathematicians in a different context is fantastic. Here is a blog article about maths trips.

YouTube channels and documentaries

Introduce your pupil to the YouTube channel Numberphile and make sure you plug any recent maths documentaries on TV. (Hannah Fry usually has a documentary on iPlayer.) 

Useful further reading

UKMT policy on the education of able students

NRICH pages on supporting high achieving and interested students

AMSP pages on ‘more maths for GCSE students’