Remembering to read and reflect

I love reading but often I find that I don’t read enough.  Better put, when I get time to read interesting books I realise the importance of making the time for it.

I guess summer holidays let this happen more often but I want to make sure I don’t forget this realisation in the coming months.  I’m normally quite a slow reader but I’ve been trying some speed reading techniques recently and they have really helped.  Completing a book in a reasonable amount of time means it is more likely for me to keep going.

I’ve read some books this summer on teaching (Classroom Assessment and Grading that Works, Kagan Cooperative Learning and Get It Together), on programming (Head First Python and Programming Collective Intelligence), on running (Complete Guide to Running), some fiction (Red Men and American Purgatorio), some brain stuff (Made to Stick and Brain Rules), a Christian book (Joy of Fearing God) and I have just started some Maths books (The Millenium Problems, Geekspeak and Alex’s Adventures in Numberland).

I’ve found that reading books is really helpful to be able to engage better with blogs.  There is something about being exposed to longer and more developed thoughts that helps to engage with more condensed thoughts better.

I’ve also found that as I’ve read about a topic I’ve got excited and captivated by it.  As I thought more about grading and assessing I’ve been itching to have a class in front of me, as I’ve learnt honed my programming skills I’ve been looking for opportunities to implement them.  I want to apply my collection of information, to make it knowledge and ultimately wisdom.

I’m heading back to Northern Ireland again today – flying instead of driving which is shorter and more pleasant (also easier to read!).  Back to Brighton on Thursday before school on Friday.  It’s been a good summer holiday but I’m ready for normality (or what counts for it round here!).

But, as normality sets in, I want to be able to keep reading and keep reflecting.

Meaningful cover-work – is it possible?

So, it looks like I will have to take some time off during the first few weeks of term.  I don’t know when it will be, it might be from day one – it mightn’t be until Christmas.  I’m half remembering that the policy of my school is two weeks for compassionate leave and I’m trying to prepare some cover work before school gets started.

Here are my constraints:

– Whatever I leave I want to be meaningful;
– I want to be able to assess/mark it in a reasonable about of time and be able to give meaningful and useful feedback;
– I can’t rely too heavily on technology as I don’t know what students will have access to;
– Currently assuming a two-week period based on half remembered comment, waiting for confirmation;
– I’d like to maintain the routines that I want while I’m gone (wishful thinking?).
I hate taking time off school.  Kids act up to cover supervisors, most of the cover that is left is busy work and it is hard to create meaningful learning experiences when you don’t know what adult is going to be in the room or the students reaction to that person.
I have a range of classes in terms of age (11-18) and ability (KS3 Level 3 to A-Level Further Maths targeted A*).  There is little I can be sure of in terms of available technology so I can’t get up a Moodle course or equivalent, though that would be the most amazing solution!
I’d like to set up some investigation style tasks but if it is really early I won’t have developed those skills with them.  Is it possible to have them develop these skills through worksheets, screencasts, etc?
I guess getting my Year 11s to work on starting revision plans and covering content from last year is an obvious one but I’m looking for ideas for any thing else.
Have you done this before?  Paternity leave is two weeks, isn’t it?  Any thoughts about meaningful cover-work?

Response to Cool and Helpful #1

Over at Roughly Normal there is an attempt to move applets from the cool to the useful.  I think that’s great and thought I’d think about the first applet on offer.

It’s a Plinko Probability Applet.   It comes from the PhET project at the Uniersity of Colorado at Boulder. 

I have tried to stick to the three questions asked but this turned into a little bit of a review for the applet as well.


How would I get my students motivated to use the tool?

I think the “big question” this might ask is, “Where is the ball going to fall?” and I think there is a step or two before this applet gets loaded up.  I imagine showing a video of a pin-board like this – one with quite a lot of rows – and dropping a ball from the top, pausing it after a few bounces and waiting.  Surely, the question that is going to come up is “where is it going to land?”.

How could we know?  Will we know for sure?  How can we check?  WIll it always land in the same place?  Get some guesses and play the video.

Then, a second video – same deal.

If we had to bet where would the best place to bet? Why?

Maybe I’ve drank too much of the Meyer kool-aid but I think this would make the applet much more engaging.


What would I want my students to struggle with?

One of the things that I really like about this applet is the histogram and how it changes dynamically but that is also one of things I dislike about it.  I think it is abstracting too soon.  I think it would be cool for those diagrams to be optional – a select to turn on and off the theoretical model.  I think this provides the answer before the students have started to ask the question.

I don’t think there is much to struggle with in this app – I think it is possibly a bit too straight forward and doesn’t have enough meat on it for me to justify wheeling out the laptop trolley for individual investigation.  Maybe as part of a larger group of applets?

I really like the scales though – switching between numerical to fraction – I think this is a really nice way to think about relative frequency.  Relating it to the histogram raises the question of why it might be a useful measure to gather.


What mathematical goals would you like students to leave with after playing with the activity?

I’d like students to be able to sketch the shape of the histogram for different values of p.

I’d like them to be able to describe what the pins would look like for different values of p.

I’d like them to be able to calculate relative frequency and to explain why it was useful.


What role does a teacher have now ideas are dead?

In his NY Times Op-Ed piece yesterday, Neal Gabler asserted that ideas are dead.  He believes that we don’t care as much about ideas as we used to.

In effect, we are living in an increasingly post-idea world — a world in which big, thought-provoking ideas that can’t instantly be monetized are of so little intrinsic value that fewer people are generating them and fewer outlets are disseminating them, the Internet notwithstanding.

I think I mostly agree with the tone of this piece.  There does seem to be a decline in thinking deeply, reason and logic seem to be falling on hard times.  Gabler reckons that science

is typically regarded in the media as mystifying at best, incomprehensible at worst.

This made me think about the role of the teacher in this.  Is it our job to provide contact with these big ideas?  To help our students see the value of thinking about information rather than just collecting it.  It is not a popular tune, not something that is seen valuable by many people at all, but that doesn’t make it unimportant.

Which brings me to show-and-tell.  Dan Meyer made me think about the value of showing students media which exists beyond my content area.  Of letting them see a Rube Goldberg machine and dealing with the comments like, ‘they have no life’ or ‘too much time on their hands’.  Of seeing that putting effort into a project just because it is cool isn’t time lost – that there will be benefits that mightn’t be obvious.  Dan says:

It’s so obvious to me that the kind of person who would create a cocktail-mixer from balsa wood and twine is simply blowing off steam that life will eventually focus in a direction that will be extremely a) constructive, b) profitable, or c) both. I can’t make this obvious to my students.

So, in this wasteland of ideas, I think we need to excite our students with ideas – big and small – and encourage them to think.  Encourage them to use their time well – following, developing, nurturing their interests.  While teachers are still excited by ideas this might be possible.  There exists a scarier possible future, one in which teachers get bored by ideas.

Let’s hope we don’t get to that point and help our new teachers see the value of ideas, even as we show our students.  I’m going to be using a show-to-tell model in my classroom – how about you?

It wasn’t like this in my day …

Sometimes it is embarrassing admitting that I teach Maths.  I’ll be at a party, my job will come up in conversation and then people will tell me about how much they hated/loved Maths – how they are terrible/great at it.  Sometimes, that is where the conversation will move on to more interesting things and I’ll sigh with relieve.  But, every once in a while, I’ll be treated to the erudite insights that my new friend has to share on the nature of the educational system and the failings of kids these days.

What I always find uncomfortable about these conversations is the subject of expertise.  After all, everyone has been a student for at least 13 years, surely everyone has a valid opinion about what makes a good school, a good teacher and a good set of qualifications.  Well, I’m not sure I agree.  I’ve trained to do this job, I’m studying for my MA and I work on engaging and enthusing 200 students a week – maybe my opinion should carry a bit more weight in this conversation?

I’m still digesting Carol Vorderman’s report and I’ll likely be posting about it for a while.  I was really interested to see that some things never change:

Employers and their organisations also complain about the low level of mathematical competence of their new employees and now many hold numeracy courses in mathematics to allow them to ‘catch up’. p4

This is the same reasoning that was given for the commissioning of Cockcroft in 1983.  Maybe things were better some mystical day in the past or maybe, just maybe, the raising of the leaving age of compulsory education is of importance here.

We have had four different qualification systems since the Second World War:

1) School Certificate

2) O Level

3) O Level and CSE


The report talks about each of these and points out that none of the systems worked for every student or every employer.

Major problems have been associated with all of them.

There never was a Golden Age. There have been times when we have met the needs of our more able children at the age of 16, but we have never had a satisfactory provision for the whole cohort. p51

I think this is really sad.  We do need to be designing curricula and qualifications that are engaging and relevant to all of our students.  I agree we can’t continue to watch 300,000 students a year be classed as ‘failures’ when they don’t achieve a C grade at GCSE.  We need appropriate and worthwhile qualifications that allow for success and progress in a meaningful way that employers will respect and take on board.  Why should the foundation curriculum be a cut down version of the higher?

nor is it good enough for the system to gear itself to them [the top 15%] and for everyone else to receive a trickled down version of their requirements. p3

We need a better system.  I want to be part of that.

In the past, end-users [students] and teachers had much greater influence over school mathematics and we advocate a return to that situation. p5

Bring it on!

Maths Curriculum Design in the UK (England in particular)

When the National Curriculum was published there was much furor the impact this might have the individual classrooms around England.  Teachers were furious to be forced to teach a given set of topics, in a given order and to be have to use the level descriptors imposed from outside.

[Update: Adam points out I made a mistake here.  While the NC set out things that needed to be taught, it wasn’t until the introduction of the National Numeracy Strategy that order was felt to be imposed.  Of course, this was non-statutory but often wasn’t treated as such.]

That was long before I joined the teaching profession.  I’m about to start my 7th year as a qualified Maths teacher.  All my career I have worked in the state sector, working in different roles in 4 different schools.  All of those have used the Sample Medium Term plans from the National Numeracy Strategy as the basis of their schemes of work.  There was some tweaking and developing, but the underlying structure was the same.

With the ongoing curriculum review and the assurances from Whitehall that teachers are going to have more autonomy, I’m worried – are we ready for it?

In the recent report, “A world class mathematics education for all our young people”, this comment is made:

In this country we have a long tradition of successful innovation in curriculum and pedagogy, particularly in mathematics, science and technology. This has come almost entirely from the grass roots, from individual teachers, small groups or charitable organisations, and has often been done on a shoestring. By contrast, many large government initiatives have not been particularly successful but have cost a lot of money. p24

In my experience, this long tradition was largely suspended with the advent of the National Strategies.  There is still work going on (Bowland and Nuffield come to mind) but this is only brought into most classrooms when it fits neatly into the pre-existing schema.  I agree with the report when it says:

There has been a culture of policies which are non-statutory being almost universally viewed as obligatory by teachers and schools, due to the government agencies’ reliance on them for their tick-box style of assessment. This has not helped the mathematical education of children. p8

With the dismantling of the strategies and the support that has provided for years being removed, I’m concerned we aren’t ready to take on the challenges of developing innovative curricula in our own departments.  I’m not convinced that the spiral delivery of the Sample Medium Term (SMT) plans has been effective but equally I don’t know how many teachers of my generation have been equipped to be able to design something better.  While I welcome the opportunity to unfurl our wings and allow innovation back into the development and design of the mathematics curricula on a local and institutional level, I fear the supports are being removed too soon and that rather than innovating we are at risk of stagnating.

Am I wrong?  Is your department already using an innovative curricula that bears little resemblance to the SMT plans? Is the spiral curriculum a keeper?

Blog archives – catching up with conversations past

Have you ever moved to a new city, started a new job, joined a new club or class and found you were the new person in a friendship group.  I’m part of a small church in Brighton and, being such a transient city, people come and go all the time.  For those of us who have been around for years, conversations often contain references to people who others have never met.  It is hard to remember and often cumbersome to fill in the gaps, watching the moment or joke slip away.

I’ve felt a bit like that as I approach the “edu blogosphere”.  It seems not many educators in the UK blog about education, so it has been awesome for me to find some inspiration on other parts of the globe.  Blogs like dy/dan, Think Thank Thunk, Point of Inflection, f(t), etc. are all really inspiring but for each of these I’ve come late to the game.  The conversation started a long time ago and I feel like I’m missing the in-jokes.

Strangely, this isn’t the end of the story though.  The wonders of archives mean that I can go right back to the start and follow the conversation up to the present.  I can follow the development of a blogger in terms of thought processes, pedagogical philosophy, etc.  I can watch as more people comment and take part in the conversation, itching to join in but knowing for most people the moment has passed.  I can see people come and go, competitions be set and the winners be declared.

I’m currently working my way through the dy/dan archives – having read everything up to April 2009.  I’m enjoying it lots but am confident I’ll enjoy it more when I can join and engage with a present conversation.  It is strange to be thinking about the current events that are reflected, thinking about where I was and what I was doing while this conversation was happening the first time round.  I don’t want to live in the past but I do want to inform my present with lessons from the past.  I’ve come across loads of conversations that have helped develop my thinking that probably will not come up again on this forum because it has been dealt with.  So, I read on.

Has anyone else ever done this?  Am I more of a freak than I think I am?