The problem with a best-fit approach

Scattergraph

Here’s a handy graph, just ready for a best fit line to be drawn through it

It is not often that I read a 50-page government-commissioned document and get wildly excited. But that is what happened when I read the “Final Report on the Commission on Assessment without levels” (September 2015).

I found pages 12-18 particularly inspiring as the commission explains the rationale behind why levels are bad and ‘not-levels’ are good.

This statement was pertinent:

Levels also used a ‘best fit’ model, which meant that a pupil could have serious gaps in their knowledge and understanding, but still be placed within the level.

And this one:

Levels were used to measure both end of phase achievement and lesson-by-lesson formative progress, but they had not been designed to fulfil the latter purpose, with the result that formative assessment was often distorted.

Just as in yesterday’s post, when I tried to explain a character flaw that had held back my practice, here was a practical example of something I was doing day-to-day which was not actually any good.

As a key stage 2 teacher I had experienced this over many years. Children came up to my phase ostensibly as ‘a level 2 child’, but the best fit approach meant that while they could add a pair of 2-digit numbers with the support of a 1-100 number square, they had no idea of any other strategies for doing the same thing, nor really any sense of the the size of the numbers they were dealing with, nor the purpose of the equals sign.

And likewise I must have been doing the same to my secondary colleagues for years: children from key stage 2 going up to key stage 3 being able to scrape enough marks to get a level 4 in a SATs test, but not with the necessary number or problem solving skills to really go any further. In fact at my school, analysis of SATS shows me that number skills have always been high, but problem solving really low – the children have been able to scrape through with good routine number skills, but lack the fluency to really excel in maths.

What is even more insidious about the ‘best-fit’ approach is what it does to ability groups within a class, particularly low ability children. But that’s tomorrow’s topic.

Image courtesry of: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a2/Scatterplot_r%3D.24.png

 

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Polish painting of Ash Wednesday I found on Wikipedia.

Polish painting of Ash Wednesday I found on Wikipedia.

Ash Wednesday. That slightly strange day in the middle of the church calendar that starts the preparation for Easter. A year ago, the palm crosses used to remember Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem were burned and their ashes are today used to mark the sign of the cross on the foreheads of believers.

For me the last year has been one of burning what I once thought was good – turning it into ash – so that something new can come from it.

While much of the journey took place in 2015, it all started with a wise observation from Mark Anderson (@ICTEvangelist) at the Google Teacher Academy in October 2014.

My team had been working on our prototype: our big idea for something that might change the world of education. It was an exciting couple of days, meeting and working with some fantastic educational thinkers and innovators. Right in the middle of it, Mark looked at our idea and said that it looks like we had thought of a solution and were now trying to fit it into a problem.

Have you ever had one of those moments when the camera zooms in on you and you realise something significant has happened. A sudden epiphany. A moment of clarity that reveals all along where you had been going wrong. This was one of those moments. I knew it was significant. I knew I should do something about it. But in the heady fervour of the Google Teacher Academy, I couldn’t quite work out what it was.

Maybe I would work it out when I got home? Or back to school – when I was back to normality? Or maybe during the next break – at Christmas perhaps?

No. Not me. It took me a full year to realise what Mark had put his finger on.

The thing is, Mark hadn’t only described the prototype my team had been working on. He had described my whole life. It was me. I thought I was an educational solution and I spent my time busily structuring and controlling the problem so that I solved it.

In school leadership I often get fed up of others only ever moaning about problems. So in my desire to be solution-focused, I had begun limiting the problems so that my current set of skills and abilities could meet it.

Being solution-focused is great, but if it makes you blind to the scope of the problem it is very dangerous. That’s true in all walks of life and particularly I have discovered that the hard way in education over the last year. And that’s what much of my #lentblog is going to explore.

Image courtsey of: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/90/Fa%C5%82at_Julian%2C_Popielec.jpg (creative commons)

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: PrimaryschoolICT.com 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’