What are we going to do about all the ‘lost learning’?

    Published: 05 July 2021

    Immersed as we all are at the moment in concern for our children’s lost learning, schools across the country are furiously developing their curriculum and adapting provision just as we have been in the HfL Primary maths team. More than 1100 teachers have joined us in our Summer Success Project for this very purpose to make the most of the learning in this term:


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    Careful decisions are being made about the “what” of the learning but what about the “how”?

    Through the use of diagnostic assessments, teachers have identified specific and focussed learning priorities for their children and are finding creative ways to adapt their provision to match the needs they have found.

    In my work with schools, teachers are reactivating key conceptual understanding that is halting the children’s progress, maintaining the current focus of the learning and securing all of this to avoid further loss! We have been thinking very carefully about our approaches for some time now and you may have read Nicola Adams’ blog that explores the practical application of teaching in a Year 4 class. Or perhaps you read this blog where Siobhan King shared the experience of a very brave Year 5 teacher in Bedwell School who had the courage to track back to early conceptual understanding to build up quicker towards the Year 5 pitch and so securing that learning effectively.

    All of this decision making has relit my interest in how we use what we know about how children learn to make the best decisions in the classroom. Are we right to reactivate previous learning alongside new learning at all? Is this the road to securing the learning or confusing the children?

    There has been much research to suggest that the exploration of learning strategies is worthwhile to maximise impact such as the model of the learning cycle proposed by Hattie and Donohue “Learning strategies: a synthesis and conceptual model” that “describes three inputs and outcomes (skill, will and thrill), success criteria, three phases of learning (surface, deep and transfer) and an acquiring and consolidation phase within each of the surface and deep phases”.

    It is a complex model but fundamentally looks at phases of learning and the importance of embedding as well as acquiring the learning in order for it to be a tool the children can continue to use in more varied learning contexts.

    We are going to be using  a lot of energy modifying the way we work so we need to be sure we’re effective as explored in this article by van Kesteren, M.T.R., Krabbendam, L. & Meeter, M which suggests our efforts will not be wasted:

    “Activating prior knowledge is already emphasized in various forms of teaching.16,17 Our results show that reactivation of prior knowledge during learning of new information indeed results in stronger association of new information with existing knowledge networks. This can be contrasted with the practice of considering knowledge as something stored externally, e.g., on the internet, which can be searched on a just-in-time basis.25 Our findings provide more reasons for why this “Google effect of memory” is undesirable.
    Instead, actively reactivating previously learned information when studying new information is beneficial for subsequent memory. Additionally, memory will be stronger when information already has a pre-existing association, such that the reactivated memory is congruent with the newly learned information. ….”

    So how would this look in the classroom? Maybe your school holds “maths meetings” or “fluency sessions” regularly that could be a great vehicle for a memorable image or model with a thought provoking question. If you are using HfL Back on Track resources you will be familiar with this format:


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    The idea is simple though. Maybe the model here is a diagram for “think 10” and some models for equal sum and equal difference. (Do read Laura Dell’s Old Maths vs New Maths blog to explore these two calculation strategies more).


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    I have seen teachers using examples just like this to reactivate the children’s learning in the fluency provision (always scaffolding accurate use of language) and simple discussion prompts are often seen on the IWB ready for the children when they come into the classroom in the morning or after lunch. Knowing the learning that is coming up, teachers are tapping into the children’s previous learning to ensure success just as was seen in the example in Bedwell school noted above. Simple tweaks just like those in Laura’s blog can then be applied so that they become tools for rehearsing and maintaining the learning.


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    With evidence that teachers are already exploring techniques such as these and enjoying the success, my colleague, Gill Shearsby-Fox and I became interested in how gaming could be used to help with the stronger association of new information with existing knowledge networks that van Kesteren, M.T.R., Krabbendam, L. & Meeter, M sought to prove.

    We found ourselves shocked and somewhat incensed by some of the statements in the recent research review series with a focus on mathematics published May 25th 2021.

    In particular:

    Pupils are more likely to develop a positive attitude towards mathematics if they are successful in it,[footnote 42] especially if they are aware of their success.[footnote 43] However, teachers should be wary of the temptation to invert this causal pathway by, for example, substituting fun games into lessons as a way of fostering enjoyment and motivation. This is because using games as a learning activity can lead to less learning rather than more.[footnote 44]

    This could be missed in this long and wide reaching review but as a statement, seems open to misinterpretation or causing headlines as if a government health warning! Gill and I are firm believers in the value of gaming in children’s learning and so we decided to unpick a few and hold them up to the same light to test that they can build stronger association of new information with existing knowledge networks.

    Let’s consider a number of games that could be used across the school for reactivation of learning and also as a useful tool for teachers to assess what the children know, can recall and can reason about.

    Game: Domino Snake

    Age group: EYFS, Year 1

    The learning that is being reactivated or assessed:

    • pattern matching
    • recognising familiar patterns to six, subitising the values
    • quantity matching
    • counting – one to one matching, stable order principle and cardinality
    • problem solving

    Observe children’s ability to:

    • notice when the patterns on the dominoes are the same without having to check either by subitising or counting
    • quickly recognise the value shown on the domino and say the value (subitising)
    • match dominoes of the same value, stating that the values are the same
    • say the numbers in the correct order (if counting to find the value) for each dot on the domino (stable order) with a number tagged to it when all the dots have been counted – the total is recognised and stated (cardinality)
    • choose the next domino to place with some thought given to the remaining dominoes to allow the snake to continue.

    From this game, you can gain a huge amount of knowledge about a child’s sense of number, especially their ability to subitise. (To find out more about the importance of subitising, read What’s all this talk about subitising? Why is it an essential foundation for counting? | Herts for Learning ).

    You may notice that some children can subitise some smaller quantities but count others. If children do count to check the value shown on the domino, this will tell you about their accuracy in counting.

    This game is good because children can play it individually or as a pair or small group and the only competition is against the dominoes. For those children who seem confident with their number sense, carefully observe them when choosing the next domino. Are they thinking carefully about which one to choose? As the teacher, you might want to question the children about their choice so that you can see if they are beginning to think strategically to use all the dominoes.

    Game: Go Fish

    Age group: KS1

    The learning that is being reactivated or assessed:

    • recognising familiar patterns to nine and subitising the values
    • bonds to ten – recalling the bonds and missing number e.g. if I have a six, how many more do I need?
    • calculation strategies – recalling facts, counting on, counting back, doubles, near doubles
    • strategic thinking

    Observe children’s ability to:

    • quickly recognise the value shown on the playing card (subitising)
    • identify when cards within their hand total ten
    • identify the missing part to ten. Can they instantly recall the facts or do you observe calculation strategies such as counting on and counting back?
    • use resources where needed, including fingers, to support finding the missing part
    • carefully listen and observe the other cards asked for or laid on the table to increase their chances of winning

    This game focuses on bonds to ten – key foundational knowledge – but it doesn’t just require them to ‘know the bonds’; they also need to apply the knowledge to the inverse.

    They are constantly working out the missing part – which card do I need to make ten?

    This game is more competitive. There is a luck element, depending on the cards you get or draw, but there is also a level of strategy. If the children listen carefully to the other players, they can begin to deduce whether someone might have a card they want. For example, Child A might need a 3 because they have a 7 in their hand. If another player asks for a 7, Child A can work out that player must have the card they need - a 3. Observe carefully for those children who are beginning to think strategically and ask them about their strategy. Can they articulate this?

    Game: Clock Patience

    Age group: Lower KS2

    • the learning that is being reactivated or assessed:
    • the position of the numbers on an analogue clock
    • the gap between each number on the clock face demarks 5 minutes
    • knowledge of key minute markers: 12 - o’clock, 6 - half past, 3 - quarter past and 9 - quarter to
    • minutes past and to the hour
    • the link between ‘minutes past’ and ‘minutes to’ when reading the minutes after half past, for example: the minute hand on 7 is 40 minutes past the hour and 20 minutes to the next hour.
    • the link between reading analogue and digital time

    Observe children’s ability to:

    • identify and describe the position of the numbers on an analogue clock
    • count in 5 minute intervals around the clock face
    • instantly identify the position of key minute markers
    • calculate or recall the minutes past the hour for each number on the clock face
    • use known positons to calculate other times, e.g. recognise that 8 on the clock face is ten minutes more than half past so must be 40 minutes past
    • say both the minutes past and minutes to for numbers 7 to 11 on the clock face
    • begin to make the link between analogue time and digital time

    This game is an adaptation of the classic card patience game, which I personally used to play with my grandma! This game can be played individually, or pairs could try and beat the cards – it is notoriously a very difficult game to ‘get out’ but this is not the primary function. The primary function of this game is the practice and rehearsal of what the numbers on the clock face mean in minutes and how these are read. It is the language and talk within this game which makes it purposeful and powerful and therefore, as the teacher, it would be this that you would be listening for and insisting upon whilst the children are playing.

    Game: Build my number

    Age group: Upper KS2

    The learning that is being reactivated or assessed:

    • Reading and writing large numbers
    • Place value of digits and associated vocabulary
    • Counting on or back in powers of ten
    • When manipulating the original numbers pupils can draw on a wide range of knowledge such as factors, multiples, doubles, primes, rounding etc.

    Observe children’s ability to:

    • read the number created
    • recognise and name the place value of each of the digits
    • recognise and explain what happens to the digits when you count on in different powers of ten, including when regrouping is needed
    • draw on a range of mathematical knowledge to add variety to the adaptations their partner is making when manipulating a number
    • give all options with an explanation why all are possible if adaptations are made so there are multiple possibilities

    This highly adaptable game provides a great opportunity for reactivation and/or rehearsal of not only place value understanding of large numbers but also a wealth of other mathematical knowledge, depending on how creative the children are.

    Initially, the teacher’s focus will be on how accurately the children are reading the numbers and explaining the place value of digits, but then focus will move onto how much other knowledge children are using to adapt the numbers. If you notice that children are only adapting the numbers in a single way, for example adding or subtracting powers of 10 from different digits, this might be a point you intervene and encourage different ways of adapting the number.

    Asking the children to make further adaptions to the game would also give the teacher insight into how flexible the children can be, using the question stem ‘What if…?’ can help children begin to think about options, for example: ‘What if the digit 7 isn’t allowed in the number?’ Or ‘What if all the numbers made have to round to 5 million?’ This playfulness with numbers and questions is an essential skill of mathematics in KS2, but that’s another blog…

    We hope this blog clarifies that reactivating old learning whilst assessing knowledge and introducing new learning can be done simultaneously and sheds light on how games can be used within this.

    You may choose to play some of the games exemplified within this blog at the start of next academic year, to help the children reactivate learning that may have become a little rusty over the summer break. This time can enable teachers to find out what the children already know about the maths they will be recalling and building upon in their new year of learning. For more ideas of games you might play, visit our YouTube channel at Herts for Learning: ESSENTIALmaths - YouTube.

    Thinking about the comment referenced above from the recent Ofsted research review, games in mathematics can of course become fun activities with very little learning if the purpose and learning being reactivated or rehearsed whilst playing the game is not carefully planned and the pupil’s needs not considered. But we would argue that any teachers’ tool, whether it be manipulatives, a text book or a scheme of work could ‘lead to less learning rather than more’ if not used with careful consideration about the needs of the pupils accessing the learning these resources are supporting. We still believe that playing games should remain in the teacher’s toolbox and like any tool, its effect depends upon the way we use it.


    van Kesteren, M.T.R., Krabbendam, L. & Meeter, M. Integrating educational knowledge: reactivation of prior knowledge during educational learning enhances memory integration. npj Science Learn 3, 11 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41539-018-0027-8

    Hattie, J., Donoghue, G. Learning strategies: a synthesis and conceptual model. npj Science Learn 1, 16013 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/npjscilearn.2016.13

    Ofsted Research Review Series: mathematics published 25 May 2021

    Blog authored by Deborah Mulroney and Gill Shearsby-Fox.

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