What has Jo Boaler got to do with it? [Maths at KSA, that is.]

At KSA, we teach maths in mixed ability groups all the way through Keystage 3 (ages 11-14) and I now think it’s one of the smartest decisions we ever made. When I was appointed Head of Maths, before the school even opened, the Headteacher asked me

How do you feel about mixed ability groups in maths?

In my brief experience up to that point, I could only imagine teaching maths in ability groups so I told him

It wouldn’t work. Absolutely no way.

You can’t possibly teach level 2 and level 6 pupils in the same class at the same time. Not unless you can clone the teacher or find a way for them to be in four places at once. I double-checked my position on this with my previous head of department and some other maths people. All agreed it was ludicrous.

He’s very sharp my headteacher. He came back and asked me

What do you know about Complex Instruction Technique?

Nothing, was my answer. He already had a solution mapped out but he planted the seed and let me water it myself.

Jo Boaler

Not wanting to use a hosepipe in the dark, I went away to research Complex Instruction Technique (CIT) and found very little of it happening in the UK. The only link I could find was Jo Boaler at the University of Sussex. I’d never really contacted anyone of academic importance out of the blue before (or anyone of any importance for that matter). Without an alternative, I emailed her and to my surprise she agreed to meet and take me through her research. That was back in early 2009.

Five pillars (and one more to come) of my classroom
When KSA opened later that year, with mixed ability maths classes as planned, the seed had grown into a sapling and group-worthy tasks were all I could think about. Between then and now, CIT has become one of the five pillars of my classroom along with Singapore maths, Times Table Rock Stars, peer tutoring and time-shifted teaching…I’m trying to construct a sixth in the shape of Three Acts. (Give me time Dan Meyer, please.)

Here’s how I get them into it
Every year, before starting on group tasks, we undergo three lessons of groupwork training that focus on:

  • The four CIT roles
  • Giving feedback
  • When groupwork goes wrong
  • Communicating well with group members

A critical part of CIT is the role structure within the group and for that pupils really need to understand the roles well. The first lesson starts with an introduction to the roles and then I get pupils into those roles as quickly as possible (best way to learn, right?)

The trick is to not get all of the pupils into groups just yet. Instead, keep half of them back to watch the groupwork taking place. What I tend to do is set it up as a ‘fishbowl exercise’, whereby pupil observers monitor each group member in action, looking carefully at what they do and say, the good and the bad. They have a checklist to help them and a clipboard to make it feel official.

In the video, you can see the fishbowl in action and pupils having their first go at taking on the four roles.

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Over the next two training lessons, we do a diamond-nine activity, learn to give feedback, dissect 8 scenarios of when groupwork fails and test out ways of communicating with each other. All the while, group roles are embedded and discussed afterwards.

Once training is complete, we’re all raring to attempt a rich group-worthy task.

So what has Jo Boaler’s research done for my pupils?
Professor Boaler’s research on CIT, which I’ve validated countless times in groupwork lessons, has led to:

  • Pupils climbing the hierarchy of intellectual status in the classroom.
  • Pupils enjoying getting stuck because they have someone to get stuck with.
  • Pupils who persevere because they’ve seen it bring results.
  • Pupils who can now work with a collaborative attitude.
  • Pupils who really believe in their own growth.
  • Pupils learning together who, in most other schools, would be learning apart.

I’ll take any one of the above but more importantly, so would my pupils.

Thank you Jo, for your dedication to this field and for the research you have carried out for the benefit of so many. Any indication to the contrary I am emphatically refuting.

Thanks to nrich for many of the activities, particularly in lesson 3.

Download each file separately or the whole package in the zip file at the bottom.

1 Problems 1 – Group Roles HW
1 Groupwork class pack
1 Group Roles – Observation sheet
1 Complex Instruction roles information
1 Groupwork lesson – Roles
2 Groupwork – giving feedback class pack
2 Group Feedback HW
2 Prioritising Groupworking Behaviours Card Sort
2 Groupwork – good groupwork behaviours
2 Diamond Nine A3 placeholder sheet.pub
2 Groupworking – good groupworking.flipchart
3 Groupwork – clever communication class pack
3 Groupworking lesson 3 coloured tokens designer
3 Groupworking – communication group designs instructions
3 Groupworking – silent communication card sort
3 Groupworking communication
Download all – Three Lessons Preparing Students for Complex Instruction Groupwork

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6 Replies to “What has Jo Boaler got to do with it? [Maths at KSA, that is.]”

  1. What an amazing approach. We use a lot of group tasks and investigations but don’t use any lessons to specifically teach about group work going wrong for example or a lesson on giving feedback.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Dave Gale

    1. Thanks Dave. Our general approach at KSA is to not start anything without preparing the pupils fully first whether it’s for groupwork or going on a coach. Although it’s time out of the curriculum, it pays dividends in the outcomes later on.

  2. This is the first that I have read of this approach, so thank you. I’m really interested in it now since I feel like I had a similar opinion of teaching mixed groups as you expressed in the beginning of the post. Do you know of any websites that go into more detail about the roles, etc.?

    1. Hi Jesse,

      You could try the 4th download in the list of resources above. In fact, delve into any of the first 4.

      This article will also shed some light on the findings and general approach.

      Hope that helps,


  3. thank you for your amazing tribute Bruno, it is really appreciated. I love the video. I am so pleased to hear that your pupils are enjoying maths, and feeling good about themselves, Jo

    1. Hi Bruno and Jo , I wonder if you have heard of any research into C I T in key stage 1? We’ve just taken on Mastery Mathematics and am keen to help my class support one another in maths! CIT seems the way forward!

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