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Think Pieces

This think-piece is one of a series intended to raise issues resulting from the Transmaths series of research projects. Each think-piece is focused on a major theme that emerged from the research and is designed to be brief and provocative. More details of the research underpinning the ideas presented here can be found in the publications database. We invite you to join the debate if you wish (details of how to do this are given below).

Why do some students flourish in adversity whilst others fail?

We found some students in our research who told stories of their progress in mathematics that showed how experiences we would typically think associated with ‘risk’ factors had become, for them, on reflection, ‘resilience’.

For instance, John (a fresher on a maths course at university) told us he went to a ‘shit school’ in a poor neighbourhood, where very few did A-level maths, and he had had to go to the ‘Further Mathematics (FM) network’ to get support for his study of FM at A-level. He had always been quite good at maths, though, and his head of department had looked after him while he effectively taught himself most of the maths syllabus. On arrival at university, however, he found his fellow students seemed to live on another planet (”jeez, some people have got the easy life sort of thing ‘cos they’re like, getting their fees paid for by parents and all sorts going on”) and he found them to need ‘spoon feeding’ (“some of these are really struggling to be on their own and stuff and like, study on their own and not in class groups or whatever”). On reflection John felt his own ‘challenging’ experiences had helped him to be more ‘independent’.

Similarly, Jenny had had a hard time concentrating in GCSE maths classes at her High School because of persistent disruption in class by other pupils. She had had to make a firm decision not to be involved with this, to distance herself from her peers (“”I’ve had enough now, I don’t want to be bad at maths… so I just ignored them, block it out and get on with it”), to make herself work hard so as to achieve her ambition of becoming an accountant. On arrival in 6th form College, she found most of her peers had gone to a vocational College elsewhere, but she made new friends and reflected that her own commitment to hard work and achievement meant she was prepared to seek help with the new demands of A-level maths.

In our analysis, we concluded that such students had found support – whether from a special teacher, or from within their family – to reflect on their learning and become robustly ‘independent’. This reflection was then used by them to tell us of their relative strengths as learners: we call this a narrative of resilience.

It may well be that these students are in the minority: that for each one like Jenny and John there are many others who fail in their challenging environments. But perhaps there are lessons we can learn from these exceptional cases, and these lessons may even be valuable for the many that fall by the wayside. So we might argue that reflection on ‘risks’ arising from relatively poor environments, facilities, and schools, and on the overcoming of challenges might be crucial for these students. Whereas it is simply ‘understood’ by many from privileged middle class families that they will make good progress in education, for others there might need to be explicit discussion of the purposes of education, of their possible ambitions in life, on how each student may wish to use educational opportunities, and on the consequences of low achievement and poor grades.

Making this an explicit part of the curriculum may be very dangerous, for it raises questions about the quality of provision or support that the school is offering, and about the limited range of strategies available to some learners. This may pose a challenge to schools in poorer communities...

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