Teaching using the Isles of What If…? and with an inquiry approach to maths is not without its challenges. It’s important to acknowledge them and in doing so, it might help us overcome them.

First of all, trying any new approach is likely to lead to some difficulties. The approach works for me and others but that doesn’t mean it will instantly (or at all) work for you. I believe in it enough to share it however. The ideas in the Isles of What If…? involve a different set of teacher actions that will be unfamiliar to many. These become more proficient with experience. Knowing when to pause and reflect, when to encourage and push forwards and when to intervene or stop altogether are important aspects of an inquiry approach. There is an assumption that the teacher just stands by and watches everything happen. This couldn’t be further from the truth. What you choose to highlight as important to the children has a big impact on what they place importance on.

In the Isles of What If…?, by it’s very nature, lessons can’t be scripted. We don’t know what direction the children will go in although we can guide them and have a good idea. Don’t be afraid to start by keeping things fairly closed and guided. The children won’t be used to using these skills either. They will need more support. Imagine if in English, the children never had the freedom to take story writing in their own direction and then suddenly, one day, you gave them that opportunity. They would struggle. This is no different. We would never deny children the creative opportunities that story writing provides and even though every child’s work is different, through experience, we can support them even though that is the case. The way we offer that support will be somewhat different to other lessons but we can improve at that. Be willing to allow things to go badly on your first go. I often recommend using a non-curriculum concept to explore (like Detached Dots) as you can focus on culture rather than content. Once the culture is there, children will take to the approach easily.

Many people assume that children can’t access these kinds of lessons as they don’t have the fluency or capabilities to think mathematically. Or that, the burden on them will be too much. This is why we have the Landing Spot. The part of the island that is about first getting our feet set and a clear direction plotted. If children are just given the ‘what if…?’ question straight away without any structures first, yes, there will be some or many that struggle. However, as working in this way becomes a habit, I find they need less and less of this. All children are able to make conjectures and spot patterns. How many times have you heard a young child say a word like ‘catched’? Why are they saying that? It hasn’t come from modeled language. It’s come from a generalisation. In most of the tasks here, even if they simply come up with examples without spotting any patterns, they are still likely to be practicing the procedure or concept that you are learning. However, particularly with experience, they can then deepen their understanding by exploring it.

The other challenge is that often we are working with learner-generated examples. There are going to be times when, through use of procedural or conceptual variation, fundamental examples or cases that would help build understanding would not be observed through solely using this approach. However, this is just one part of their diet. The Isles of What If…? approach is not discovery learning. It is not the case that children should ‘discover’ prime numbers or how to add two numbers together. This still needs to be explicitly modeled and taught. It is one tool to then explore these concepts at a greater depth. Through it though, the children will build a connectionist viewpoint of maths and be able to use mathematical language naturally. Mathematical reasoning is more than just multiple ways of answering a question, representing it or explaining how to do it. It’s about being able to take a creative leap, conjecture and explore. If you ask most children or adults what it means to be a mathematician, I’m not entirely sure we’d be happy, as educators, with the answers we’d get. I, and many others, want to change that.