My first original idea

I’m being observed tomorrow. I’m teaching maths.

I’ve come up with an idea – the children need to learn how to use Pie Charts and I’m going to teach them how to do it using perfect numbers as the vehicle. What’s great is that it’s an original idea. I Googled it and found no results. Look:

Evidence that my idea is indeed original

Evidence that my idea is indeed original

The lesson may not work, but at least it’s original. And if it does work, who knows, maybe it will sell. Maybe I could publish it to the TES website and make – I don’t know – pounds.

Or maybe I should wait and see if the children actually learn something first. And if they do, I could always find contentment in that.

Safe Search: The ‘Anu Ojha’ Test

Anu Ojha, Space Scientist, in action

Anu Ojha, Space Scientist, in action

This is Anu Ojha OBE, Director of the National Space Academy programme in the UK. Here he is ‘making a comet’ in front of a whole load of Primary school children at an event I attended. When I Googled him, I didn’t realise it would test the ‘Safe Search’ of my school.

You see there’s another Anu Ojha on the internet and she doesn’t tend to wear the same quantity of clothes as the distinguished space scientist I was interested in finding out more about.

As you’ll have seen from my recent posts, I’m tremendously proud of how we use Chromebooks at my school, but here is a problem: you can ‘force Safe Search’, but how Safe is Safe Search? And how safe should it be?

I was interested in this part of the admin console for Chromebooks which allows me to lock the Search Provider:

It's tempting to lock the Onibox so only one search provider can be used.

It’s tempting to lock the Onibox so only one search provider can be used.

The problem with Google Safe Search is that you still see some suggested images. And while the other Anu Ojha isn’t entirely naked, I am uncomfortable with the amount of clothing she is wearing and inadvertantly showing those images in a primary school classroom.

There are some safe search options that avoid images altogether. Kidrex and Paws Explore are two I’ve come across that do this and both seem to do a decent job. If you click on those links, you’ll see that both only bring up articles about Anu Ojha OBE, Space Scientist with no images in sight.

But there’s another argument too – should I stop being so prudish and just teach children that sometimes they come across unhelpful images? At the moment I haven’t locked school search to Paws Explore – but it is an option that we can use – I would be interested to hear different views on this…

Update (13:15 8th May 2015) courtesy of @adammcevoy: also pass the ‘Anu Ojha’ test.


Ten Minutes to a Safe and Purposeful Chromebook

Recently I visited a school where the headteacher was worried about their Chromebooks. A device that was merely a window to that internet? Full of all those unedifying images and distracting videos? How could that help her primary school children?

I countered that some of the children at my school take school Chromebooks home with them and that I believe (quite confidently) that when they do so, the Chromebooks are the safest device in their home. What’s more, they are purposeful too.

It transpired that the school in question hadn’t purchased the management licenses for the Chromebooks, which is the single hidden cost I wrote about yesterday. So a week later, when the school had purchased said management licenses from the reputable Google Apps re-seller, Cloud technology Solutions (although in the interest of fairness, and because they also do a brilliant job, I always recommend C-Learning as an alternative), I returned and gave a quick ten minute guide to get them started. Here’s how it went:

  1. Help the children stay safe on Chromebooks by enabling safe browsing, blocking malicious sites and blocking geolocation.
    Enforce Safe Browsing, Block Malicious sites and geolocation

    Enforce Safe Browsing, Block Malicious sites and geolocation


  2. Make sure you can track what children do on their Chromebook by blocking incognito mode and saving the history.
    Disallow incognito mode and save browser history

    Disallow incognito mode and save browser history


  3. Encourage access to safe content by forcing safe search on both Google and Youtube searches.
    Force Safesearch for both Google and Youtube

    Force Safesearch for both Google and Youtube


  4. Make sure those popular and sometimes inappropriate search suggests don’t appear.
    Block Search Suggest

    Block Search Suggest


  5. Block those ‘bonus’ bookmark bars that often promote adware.
    Block bookmarks

    Block bookmarks


  6. Load some pages on start-up that the children and teachers will find useful.
    The pages that my Year 4 class have loaded at start-up

    The pages that my Year 4 class have loaded at start-up.


Ten minutes later, the school I was working with had Chromebooks with both a safe and purposeful user-experience. Obviously a lot more fine tuning can follow, but it seems to me that getting technology out to children that is both safe and purposeful in only ten minutes saves an awful lot of time that can be better spent on teaching.

Why am I saying this now? Time to declare an interest: I’m presenting at the free, online Google Education on Air Conference this Saturday with the title “Chromebooks, the easy classroom companion.” I’ll be telling some of my school’s story with using Chromebooks over the last 4 years and explaining more of why Chromebooks are the ideal device for the classroom. Come along, join in and share your view…

The hidden cost of the Chromebook

When I bought 20 laptops for my school and put them in a trolley back in 2007 I thought I had solved my school’s IT problems. No more badly laid out IT suite – the future was mobile. I had bought 20 cheap but reliable windows laptops. These devices would be used by the teacher in their own classrooms. Wow – I thought I was starting a revolution.

But I hadn’t counted on the hidden costs.

At the time, all the software we were using was Windows based and it all cost money. About 25% the cost of each device. And then there were technician costs. Setting up the things and configuring them for the network seemed to take days. But looking back it was about 6 half days – about 5% of the cost of the devices. After setting up, some of the devices went wrong – they needed software re-installing and drivers updating. Another 5%. And after a year some of the batteries started to go – not for all of the machines, just three or four – but it was expensive and added another 5% to the price of the solution.

But the biggest hidden cost was teacher time. The laptops took at least 5 minutes to fully load and get onto the network. Do this three times a day and you’re looking at 15 minutes a day. Do this every day in a 192-day UK school year and you’re looking at about 15 days. That’s £3000 at current supply rates, or about 50% of the cost of the solution. And that doesn’t even count the disillusionment that the teachers feel at the wasted time at the start of each lesson.

What’s more, having to charge the laptops up over dinner time, because with only 3 hours battery life, they wouldn’t last into the afternoon, caused even more time loss and frustration.

But now I have Chromebooks. The hidden cost is £19 for the management console. Setting up time takes 2 hours for 30 Chromebooks and my technician doesn’t need to do it – some volunteer children in Year 6 do it instead. The battery means they last all day. The eight-second start up is a huge bonus for teachers previously frustrated by technology. In short the hidden costs are about 10% of the device cost. Compare that with the laptops I bought in 2007 where the hidden costs where at least 85% of the cost of the device and you can see why I’m so pleased with the Chromebook solution.

Have you counted the hidden costs of your IT solution?

Why am I saying this now? Time to declare an interest: I’m presenting at the free, online Google Education on Air Conference this Saturday with the title “Chromebooks, the easy classroom companion.” I’ll be telling some of my school’s story with using Chromebooks over the last 4 years and explaining more of why Chromebooks are the ideal device for the classroom. Come along, join in and share your view…

Chromebooks are how much?

Samsung Chromebook

My Original Samsung Chromebook 500

When I first bought a Chromebook back in 2011, I bought an experiment. It was quite an expensive experiment too. Now Chromebooks are so cheap that I can’t imagine buying anything else for use in my school.

So there’s lots of things to say here. I could tell the story of how Chromebooks have come down in price. Or I could explain my belief that children do best with technology when they have a range of different types of device to use. But the main thing is this: it’s teachers that make a difference to children in schools. And that’s why it is important that Chromebooks are cheap – because schools that can minimize their technology spend can maximize their spend on teachers.

Think about it this way – what you prefer: a school with the best devices or a school with the best teachers? I know the answer – it’s both! But we live in austerity times – maintaining and developing the quality and number of adults we have teaching children has to be our priority.

I bought my school’s first set of Chromebooks back in 2011. They were the same kind as the one I had experimented with as a personal device. They were great because they were easy to maintain and perfect for running our Google Apps on. But there were expensive. For twice the price of a Chromebook back then I could buy a device that could do a lot more than twice the stuff – Chromebooks were not superb value for money.

So, 3 years later, when our next device purchasing round came round, I was thinking I would dip my toes into the waters of device-agnosticism and buy something different. But by then Chromebooks were cheaper. At only £165 each I could increase the number of devices the school had to a point where it would make classroom management a lot easier (I’ve always thought children sharing computers is a bad idea). And now I can no longer buy an alternative device that costs twice as much and can a lot more than twice the stuff.

This year it got even harder. Chromebooks at £120 each. “Chromebooks are how much?” I said to myself. Wow! Now I can kit a classroom out with basic devices for less than £4000. I find that my technology budget can go loads further than it did before. And I can still focusing the majority of the school spend on staffing, which (as I said above) is the most important thing.

Why am I saying this now? Time to declare an interest: I’m presenting at the free, online Google Education on Air Conference this Saturday with the title “Chromebooks, the easy classroom companion.” I’ll be telling some of my school’s story with using Chromebooks over the last 4 years and explaining more of why Chromebooks are the ideal device for the classroom. Come along, join in and share your view…


Mathemateers and their Chromebooks

Something I’ve not mentioned too often in my posts about my remedial group: the Mathemateers, is that each of them have a Chromebook.

A Chromebook is a complete non-event as a device. All it does is provide seamless access to the online materials you need to use to educate your children.

So I’ve previously written about using Khan Academy and Google Classroom to give my children meaningful homework and challenging practice. Seamless. Khan Academy and Google Classroom just work.

And here’s the thing: my school owns the devices, yet I let the children take them home. How can that be? Where is the safety in that? The management console in Google Apps allows me to enforce safe search in both Google and Youtube. I’m pretty confident that the Chromebooks are the safest device the children have at home.

But it must be an effort managing that sort of thing? No. Not really. It’s less time than marking a set of books and moreover my technician in school spends no time managing Chromebooks. He spends some time distributing apps to iPads and considerable time managing our Windows network, but no time managing Chromebooks.

I’m going to be speaking in more detail about how ace I think Chromebooks are at the Google Education on Air conference at the start of May. Here’s the details of my session. Even better, the Mathemateers will be there in person, through the power of the Google Doc. Might see you then.

Showing Progress in Fractions

One of the great things about teaching fractions to my Mathemateers group is that they knew pretty much nothing about them. This meant that whatever they learned would show oodles of progress – always good for impressing line managers.

(Not that it matters in this circumstance. I am the booster (remedial) teacher for the Year 6 group, therefore reporting to the Year 6 teacher who in turn reports to the Key Stage 2 Phase Leader. However I line manage both these people, so it’s less of a line and more of a circle…)

The assessment system we use showed that all the children in the group struggled with fractions. For example, Sarah‘s profile in ‘number’ looked like this:

Sarah's lowest 'ticks' were in Fractions

Sarah’s lowest ‘ticks’ were in Fractions. My school used the Incerts assessment system.

Of course when I asked Sarah some questions, it transpired that her prior assessment in fractions was, shall we say, over-ambitious, in that the assessment system said “she is developing the ability to use simple fractions that are several parts of a whole”, when actually she couldn’t do this question from ‘Recognizing Fractions 1‘ in the Khan Academy (which I have written about previously).

Most of the children couldn't do this question when we started.

Most of the children couldn’t do this question when we started.


Of course there’s the whole issue about performance and learning here. Sometimes children really do know something, but for whatever reason they don’t show it. This is performance. Performance variation is one of the main reasons for the difficulty in carrying out accurate assessment in education.

But for me as a teacher, this is great. I can now teach some stuff to the children and show great progress. And that’s what I did. Pretty soon the children had motored on to ‘Recognizing Fractions 2′ and even managed to do questions like this by the end of the first week.

By end of week 1 children could do this

By end of week 1 children could do this

No I’m not saying this is world-record teaching, but it does show progress. And what’s great is there’s an image, you can talk about it with the child and then the child has to write down the answer in fraction notation. It’s the perfect move from the Pictorial to the abstract. The downside, if you only use the Khan Academy is that children don’t write down what they did in their books and so their progress isn’t there for external visitors. And that’s not good if you’re a very book-scrutiny focused kind of school.

What would be great would be if we had already moved on to the New National Curriculum. However, as you well know, Year 6 are still working to the old curriculum. You see Incerts have just released their tracking system for the new curriculum and it looks fantastic. Here’s a picture of the ticks I could make about Sarah’s fraction learning:

What the new assessment for fractions looks like in Incerts.

What the new assessment for fractions looks like in Incerts.

However I can’t use that for my current group because they’re in Year 6. Nope. I’m going to have to cope with the learning that’s actually happened in the children’s brains and their SATs results in a few weeks time. Speaking of that, the final tool I’ve used to show progress is the Testbase tool that is a store of all the previous SATs questions. Sounds boring, but it’s really, really handy at the stage of the school year when teaching in Year 6.


Here comes the Dominator

So of course, it was Melissa who came up with the classic line. It’s a line that I’m sure is heard in many Key Stage 2 classrooms whenever fractions are being taught.

To the question “and what do you call the number at the bottom of the fraction?”

The child responds: “Is it the D-d-d-dominator?”

Fractions are counter-intuitive to many people. They get smaller as they get bigger. When you multiply them they get smaller, sometimes. And when you divide them you make them go upside-down. They are just weird. And then you add new words like the dominator* and the nominator** and the children get even more confused…

I spent quite a bit of time teaching my Mathemateers about fractions in the last term and I’m hoping that my next few posts will detail some of my failures and successes as I attempted to teach them something they had previously known very little about.

I have written some time ago about the importance of accurate vocabulary when teaching mathematics, particularly with fractions.

* by this I mean ‘denominator’

** by this I mean ‘numerator’

If only there was a tool like Khan Academy

So I was speaking to an inspector a few months ago who was trying to look a bit more deeply into my schools maths data. She asked out loud, “couldn’t you make a system that finds out how well children are doing in each individual area of maths, rather than these overall numbers?

Broadly speaking, that is the problem with data in schools. There’s always the danger of there being so many interpretations and approximations between the numbers that come out of the system and what’s actually in a child’s brain that the data becomes meaningless. Here’s how assessment works:

  • we decide what children should be able to do by particularly ages or stages and write it down in sentences.
  • we assess how well children can do the things we wrote down.
  • we turn those assessments into numbers.

Sometimes those assessments are called tests, at other times they are called observations. Either way it’s more or less the same process. However, quite often as teachers we get distracted and over-focused on the last stage of the process – on the numbers and less on the ‘what the children can actually do’ part of it.

This is where Khan Academy is brilliant. I’ve been using it this term with my Mathemateers group, and even though it doesn’t entirely match with the UK National Curriculum, it does help spot the gaps that children can’t do and provide the children with ways to practice skills that they are still shaky on. I also like the way I can focus the children on a particular skills at a time so that I’m not having to teach each child individually. For example for a few weeks I was focusing on fractions, so I directed children to activities that helped them visualise and practice fractions. I used Google Classroom quite often this – I would post a link in the Google Classroom assignments that would take the children directly to the Khan Academy challenge I wanted them to do.

Why Khan Academy fits in to the inspector’s question is that it gives a brilliant assessment of how children are doing in each area. For example, when setting my fractions challenge I mentioned earlier, I could see that one child had already mastered it, another was struggling at it and the rest had never tried it – it meant I could focus the challenge precisely on what I wanted the children to learn, support the child who was struggling and set a harder challenge for the child who had already mastered it. Ace.


Trialling Google Classroom

Google Classroom: a streamlined easy experience

Google Classroom: a streamlined, easy experience

I mentioned early on in my Mathemateers posts that I would be using Google Classroom to help me ‘deliver content’. So a few words about Google Classroom.

It’s easy. Really easy.

As the teacher, I choose my students from the Google Apps for Education users (we have Years 2-6 set up as individual users). The children receive an email to ‘accept’ the invite, or they can enter a code to join the new class that has set up. From there I can do one of two things:

  1. Make an announcement.
  2. Set an assignment.

The only difference in functionality between the two is that the children don’t have to respond to announcements. With assignments I write a title, write a sentence or two of description, set a due date and then I can attach ‘content’ in various ways:

  • as an uploaded attachment,
  • as a Google Drive file (docs, slides, sheets or drawings),
  • as a Youtube video,
  • as a URL.
The assignment screen on Google Classroom

The assignment screen on Google Classroom

It’s over to the students then. Each of my students has a touchscreen Chromebook – this may seem extravagant, but at less than £170 per device I think it is well worth the investment.

I’ve added Google Classroom to the screen of their Chromebooks via the Google Apps admin console, so it’s right there whenever they log on to their device. They can open it and quickly see which assignments they have done, or are yet to do, or (occasionally) are late at handing in.

Like the teacher, they can attach work to their ‘turn in’ comment. So far this has range from Google Drawings to screenshots of other work they have done online. This takes a bit of training, but once they’ve been through the routine a couple of times they soon have the hang of what to do when they have finished their assignment.

So far I’ve mainly used it for homework – it’s so satisfying to know that students are doing meaningful work without sending them home with polypockets full of photocopied worksheets.

It’s early days so far – I’ve only been using it with children for four weeks, but I can’t wait to get it going with the whole school. It may just revolutionise the way we do homework…