Teachmeet Wiki damage. Does this happen often?


This morning I logged onto the Teachmeet wiki to look at a couple of things. There are a couple of teachmeets coming up that I’ve got a hand in organising: Teachmeet Brum and Teachmeet Blackcountry. (Do sign up if you’re interested!)


I noticed a rather strange link at the top of the wiki, that led, of all places, to a Mercedes Benz website in Indonesia. Not very teachmeet I thought. I suppose there could be a reason for that being on there, but not one that was obvious, so I deleted it (if it is a bona fide link, then whoever put it on can reinstate it easily).


It made me wonder how often that sort of thing happens.


The teachmeet wiki is a shared resource, it’s reasonably easy to work out how to log on – you could write whatever you wanted on there. I know that on Wikipedia there are people who deliberately put false stuff on there, just for a laugh, but I think whoever did this is trying to increase their website’s ranking in the Google system, which has something to do with how many links you have from other websites. I may be wrong.


I remember Tom Barrett a little while ago talk about how he ‘tends his garden’ of Interesting Ways: his crowd-sourced resources for different ways to use technology in the classroom. That phrase means a little more to me this morning having done a little weeding myself. When damage occurs to a shared resource, who fixes it? If it’s crowd-sourced, can anyone do so? I didn’t set up the Teachmeet wiki, so should I be allowed to take stuff off there if I don’t think it’s been put there in the ‘spirit of Teachmeet’?


It’s great to be able to share stuff freely, to collaborate on tech that improves teaching. It speeds things up, gives us a wider range of resources to use, and richer ways of using them. I wonder if this kind of ‘damage’ happens often… and if it will increase in the future. When more and more teachers use tech, will others use it as an opportunity for cheap publicity, or better Google rankings? What experience do others have of this?

The book all primary / elementary teachers should read. #mathchat

I was just engaged in a conversation on #mathchat about skill levels in primary teachers, when I realised that the book all teachers of young children should read was sitting right next to me: ‘Mathematics Explained for Primary Teachers’ by Derek Haylock.


The bees are enjoying my aliums


Just by way of contrast with the Daily Mail article that showed that bees were all dying from us using mobile phones, I observed the bees all enjoying my aliums this evening.


There is a strong 3G signal in the area, most of my neighbours have wireless and we pick up a good connection to the local BT Opensone service. Oh, and I took the picture using my mobile phone.


That might not be very good evidence, but it’s about the same quality that the Daily Mail presented.

The Lady is back – how to celebrate the end of Year 6 SATs

Last night, at the end of #ukedchat, I asked for some help as to what I could do with a Year 6 class the day after SATs had finished. I do PPA cover every Friday morning in Year 6, but this Friday was different.

(apologies – it looks like these files didn’t copy across properly from Posterous)


Do’s and Don’ts of Primary (Elementary) level Algebra

In my last post I argued that we should be teaching the thinking that becomes algebra from as early an age as possible. But what are those skills? What are the Dos and Don'ts? Many of the don'ts stem from the place of arithmetic thinking in our curriculum. Thinking arithmetically is all about getting a right answer, it's not always about being able to use that right answer to get more right answers in the future, and I think this is at the heart of what follows:

To develop algebraic thinking:

  1. Don't use the equals sign as an operator. Many children see the equals sign and think Do something; Work that out; Add those. The equals sign represents balance, equivalence. Children need to learn that in arithmetic to support their algebraic thinking.
  2. Don't represent things with the same initial letter as the problem, like 'a' for apples and 'b' for bananas. All it does is reinforce the misconception that the letter stands for an object or a specific number, rather than a variable.
  3. Don't get tied up in knots about BODMAS (the order that operations are carried out). The context of the given problem will sort that out. It needs to be made explicit when algebraic notation is introduced – you can explain how different calculators work those our sequentially or using an algebraic precedence of operators.
  4. Don't limit thinking about sequence to the next number. See if the children can see the rule or the pattern.

  1. Teach patterns from an early an age as possible. Here's Marylin Burns fantastic lesson.
  2. Do give children plain paper for them to represent their maths graphically.
  3. Tabulate patterns and sequence so children can move from seeing the 'up-and-down rule' (the sequential generalisation) to the left-to-right rule (the global generalisation).
  4. Follow the previous step by asking 'what's my rule?'
  5. Use empty box problems (e.g. 4+□=11)
  6. Do encourage children to represent the problem, not just solve them. Then the numbers can be changed and children can use the same representation to solve harder problems (perhaps by using a calculator and a spreadsheet).
  7. Do use a trial and improvement approach. This is especially powerful when it can be done using a spreadsheet.
  8. Do use the fantastic free materials that exist free all over the internet. Here's some that help children to find rules and describe patterns that the UK government produced a few years back, stored on the website of Dudley LA.
If there are anymore do's and don'ts, or any that you disagree with, please leave a comment.

At what age should we start teaching algebra?

Like many people, algebra is a slightly painful word. Rows and rows, indeed columns of columns of x's and y's attacked me at secondary school. I didn't really get what they meant, even though I was actually quite good at solving equations.

Now as a primary school teacher I still have a blind spot when it comes to algebra, there's something about it that I don't quite get.

But I've had a revelation today. I think I know what I've not been quite getting all this time.

I've just read a chapter in a wonderful book by Derek Haylock: "Mathematics Explained for Primary Teachers" (4th Edition). I've been able to access the book through the MaST programme I'm on at Edge Hill University – but it was so good that I bought the whole book from Amazon. It starts with a question that illustrates why I don't get question. I don't want to steal Haylock's thunder, so here's a different version of the same concept:

On a school visit, 6 students are can go for every 1 teacher. There are t teachers, s students can make the visit. Describe the relationship between s and t.

The temptation is to say 6s=t. That is exactly what I did in the equivalent problem that Haylock set me. But then, say 30 students make the trip, then according to the equation I just wrote, I need 6*30 teachers. 180 teachers for 30 students? Slightly over-powering! The answer is s=6t

Haylock makes the point that I'm getting confused between 'things' or 'objects' and variables.

In arithmetic, which dominates primary teaching, I use letters as abbreviations – hence 't' for teachers. There's also m for metres, kg, mm, l, and many more. In algebra, letters never represent abbreviations for measurements, they represent variables – they stand for whatever the number you've chosen. An amount that can be changed. It is precisely for this reason that it is unhelpful to use 't' for teachers and 's' for students, because it provides the illusion that you are representing the actual teachers as a tangible thing., rather than the number of them.

I think many of us in teaching younger children think of algebra as a nice extension to do when the children have really got their arithmetic sorted. But I'm seeing now that if we only ever train children to think arithmetically, than we are doing them a disservice. Algebra is a branch off the same mathematical tree that Arithmetic grows on, it is not a branch that nicely extends from Arithmetic. Algebra develops from recognising and playing with patterns, investigating sequences and seeing how things can be represented as bigger or smaller. Many of us teachers, especially in schools were standards are low, look at these lessons and wonder 'how will this help the children's maths?' And by maths we are thinking of arithmetic and doing well in tests (which for 11 year olds are about 50% arithmetic). We are not thinking of developing the children's brains so they can generalise patterns and represent problems.

I can hear the question being posed. So what? Why should children have to generalise patterns and represent problems?

Well the answer comes down to being able to solve problems with much bigger numbers and larger degree of complexity. I might be able to solve a problem with my arithmetic skills, but if I can represent it I can use a spreadsheet or a scientific calculator to solve it for any number. Likewise I might be able to work out the 15th term of the triangular number sequence, but working out the 77th is a rather harder challenge – I can save loads of time by generalising the pattern, representing it with algebra and calculating from there.

I wonder how many software developers, games designers, app creators and the like can get away with only thinking arithmetically? I don't know anything about how those kinds of jobs work, but I'm sure that some level of algebraic thinking is required for those jobs.

So. An answer to my question: as young as possible. In my next post I'll start to explain how…

What went wrong with Birmingham after Tim Brighouse left?

I’ve been teaching in Birmingham for 12 years. When I started teaching, Birmingham was such a popular authority (and I was such an average NQT) that I couldn’t get a job there – I had to move to Hertfordshire for a year instead.


Back in Birmingham a year later, it was a magical place to be working. Tim Brighouse was (and still is) a true visionary leader. He cast a vision where every child could succeed and where teachers knew they could play a meaningful part of that success.


I met him toward the end of their tenure in 2001 – he had this habit of just turning up at your school, saying something perceptive and positive and leave with the whole staff feeling really good about themselves. When I met him he was taking a year to visit every school in the authority – a reasonable task you might think for the leader of all the schools in that authority, but when you consider that there are more than 400 schools in Birmingham, it’s a task that would mean visiting at least 2 schools every day.


In addition to Professor Tim, Mick Waters, recently head of the QCDA, was head of the advisory service in Birmingham (BASS). I remember the advisors that he inspired talking so passionately about their subjects that it rubbed off on everyone else. Today those same advisors, many of whom are taking redundancy of ‘going independent’, still talk about the halcyon days under Mick and Tim.


Now Birmingham Local Authrity is wracked for cash. Mick Waters BASS once had more than 300 people to serve it’s 420 schools, soon it will have less than 50. Where in other areas of the country some job cuts can be covered by not renewing secondments, in Birmingham the sheer size of the service meant that secondments were phased out over 10 years ago. In addition, the social services department, now the province of the dirctor of children’s services (the equivalent position held by Tim, but an area that he didn’t have to deal with) has failed two inspections.


I can hear the words of the Emperor in ‘The Gladiator’ played by the late Richard Harris, saying “there once was a dream that was Brimingham…” it is this idea that a large city with many different languages spoken and many differet cultures represented can somehow pull together and work towards a better future. That idea existed under Tim and Mick.


So what did go wrong?


I suppose you could blame it on a whole load of external factors: the economy, social media, 9-11; or even internal factors such as appointing too many advisors or admin staff.


However, I think it goes down to succession planning. Tim and Mick are both brilliant leaders, but the people who came after them weren’t quite as good somehow. Not quite as good at passing on a vision. I don’t know them personally, but I think one perogative of leadership is to be a leader of leaders – to be raising up the kind if people who can not only do what you can do, but can do better than you can do. Many leaders need a good manager or two to follow them round and make sure their vision is carried out – if those managers are never given the opportunity to develop their own vision then they won’t be able even to follow in their leader’s footsteps, let alone surpass them.


That’s all a load of pub-theory of course. I have no real knowledge of the internal workings of Birmingham LA over the past ten years. The real impact for me is to make sure that I can lead people well, whilst giving some the opportunities and skills to go beyond what I can ever do. That goes for my own children, students and staff alike.

My school leadership experiment


I’m not the kind of teacher who always wanted to run a school. I’ve met them though. I met a PGCE student a few years ago on the ‘fast track’ program who told me that she wanted to be a deputy head within 2 years. Fair play to her I thought. And if the addage is true that good teachers make poor school leaders then she should be a really excellent headteacher by now


Mind you, I was a pretty shocking student teacher myself (so I’m hoping that’ll make me a good school leader ;-)). My tutor commented on the positive relationship I developed with my students, but aside from that my lessons were poorly planned and taught; differentiation was minimal. In fact I failed my first teaching practice. A year earlier I had had no idea of becoming a teacher, but my inability to sell anything as a salesman and the fact that no record contract was forthcoming for my band, conspired with other events (too long and tedious for the purposes of this post) to mean that teaching became not just an option but a preference. A few months later I started teacher training. Unlike the PGCE student I mentioned in the first paragraph I had no notion or ambition of school leadership.


Since then I’ve worked for a whole range of school leaders in different contexts, all of whom have played a part in making me think I could do the job. It wasn’t even a dream to begin with, but it did become a dream at some point. And last Thursday, at interview, the dream beame a reality when I was appointed as deputy head at Paganel Primary School, following two terms of ‘acting-up’ in that role. Apologies for any pride seeping through in that last sentence – it comes before a fall, I know.


Aside from inspiring me (in their various ways) to take up school leadership myself, the school leaders have a further thing in common. There have been eleven in all, and nine of them have had broken marriages of some kind. The two that remain are the two that I’d least like to emulate.


Now eleven is no number to base any kind of statistical sample on, and I really shouldn’t be fretting. But I am slightly. What if it really is impossible to maintain a balanced family life and be a successful school leader? I don’t have the personal experience to prove otherwise. Marriage breakdowns and unfortunate events happen in all walks of life, but in 15 years of my teaching I know a far greater proportion of teachers who have maintained marriages and careers than school leaders who have done so.


So my personal experiment is this: can I blend school leadership with the rest of my life so that I’m still a good dad and a good husband? It seems easy at the moment, sitting in the garden on a bank holiday with the sun shining down on the children playing with water guns and the climbing frame, drinking iced squash. But tomorrow I’m deputy head again and the ‘real work’ starts…