Education Endowment Foundation:EEF blog: Supporting learners to work collaboratively in mathematics

EEF blog: Supporting learners to work collaboratively in mathematics

NRICH maths
NRICH maths

Dr Ems Lord is the Director of NRICH, and Liz Woodham is NRICH Primary Coordinator. The NRICH website offers rich mathematical activities, which aim to nurture curious, resourceful, and confident learners of mathematics. In this blog, Ems and Liz discuss ways in which we can help learners to work collaboratively in a mathematical context.

Blog •3 minutes •

Good thinkers collaborate and communicate. They work productively with other people, valuing different points of view. They are willing to change their mind when presented with convincing arguments. They know when to seek help, when to support others, when to speak up and when to compromise (NRICH 2024). So how do we help our learners to become better at collaborating mathematically? 

Collaboration is complex

Being able to work in a collaborative way is complex and requires multiple skills, indeed many adults find it difficult! In this blog, we’ll explore three key approaches to nurturing more collaborative learners. We’ll illustrate these using the problem Magic Vs.

Magic vs

A reason to collaborate

A low threshold, high ceiling activity is designed to be mathematically accessible and to have built-in extension opportunities. In other words, everyone can get started and everyone can get stuck.

The low threshold means that, working in pairs using digit cards, learners can find at least one magic V.

Can you find a magic V with a magic total of 9? And another? How many possible magic Vs with a total of 9 are there?”

This is trickier than finding a single solution and there is not a single right’ way to proceed. The increased challenge gives learners a reason to collaborate. Talking productively with others can help learners make progress.

As everyone has experienced the same initial challenge, we can have meaningful, constructive conversations together as the lesson progresses.

Modelling effective discussion and listening skills

In her blog post, the EEF’s content specialist for maths, Grace Coker, offers the acronym MODEL’, which summarises key strategies and behaviours that adults can model to encourage pupils to develop their independence and motivation, the D’ standing for discussion’.


Grace invites us to ask ourselves whether we really listen to learners’ explanations. Do our own contributions encourage further exploration of ideas, or are our comments purely evaluative?

To model effective discussion, two adults might have a conversation in front of the class about the approach they could take to find all the possible magic Vs with a magic total of 9.

When a pair of learners offer an explanation, we might further the thinking by asking, How could we use what they have done so far to find more solutions?”.

Facilitating productive interactions between learners

Asking more how” and why” questions rather than what is…?”, generates a variety of responses, motivating learners to contribute, and offering opportunities for making connections.

How do you know you have got all the magic Vs with a magic total of 9?”

We can help the conversation develop, rather than the talk becoming a series of monologues:

Do you have any comments about their solution? Do you agree with them? Why or why not?”

Thank you, we will come on to different magic totals in a moment. Let’s try to respond to what they said first.”

We can give feedback on the quality of the group work, either verbally or by writing short notes on the board:

I noticed that Rita was looking at her partner as she was listening.”

Surina interrupted, but then she clamped her hand over her mouth so Izaak could carry on talking!”

I overheard Max build on what his partner had said by saying so that means…’”

By explicitly drawing attention to examples of collaborative working, by modelling some of the skills ourselves, and by offering plenty of opportunities to work in this way, we can help all children become collaborative mathematicians.

Further reading:

To find out more, read NRICH’s guidance Supporting Students to Work Collaboratively, and browse the collection of Primary and Secondary Being Collaborative problems, which offer learners opportunities to work in this way.

Recommendation 5 of the EEF’s Improving Mathematics in Key Stages 2 and 3’ guidance report.

EEF Improving Mathematics in Key Stages 2 and 3’ evidence review.