Google Teacher Academy

I’m quite excited about the prospect of attending the Google teacher Academy in July this year. It’s the first one to be held in London and I got in to it partly on the strength of my video which you can see here.

 

The video is a bit mad really – you obviously can’t teach telekinesis to primary phase children – it’s more of secondary school job if you ask me.

 

It also helped to start discovering some well helpful people on the internet who can give advice on technology and the like. Doug Belshaw was one. His blog lives at http://dougbelshaw.com/blog/

Leaps in technology

Some of us are a bit slow in the uptake.

We’re teachers.

We’re a bit slow because we’re so busy doing what we think we should be doing that we don’t take time to make our lives easier.

If only we spent a few moments finding the things that would make our lives easier, then we’d be less busy and teach better.

The pipe is more important than the contents of the pipe.

Today I made my life a bit easier. I learnt how to do Twitter. It took me 10 minutes. Then I learnt how to e-mail remotely into my blog. I’m doing that now from my phone.

Leaps forward in technology – for me anyway…

Exploring Children’s Attitudes towards Mathematics

The river winds on its course and today has taken an unexpected detour from Scalextric into maths.

I’ve just read a paper by Ben Ashby with the above title and for my MAST study I’m to reflect on what the key factors are that inhibit maths learning within my setting. I think the two main ones are confidence (particularly in girls) and self-belief.

Confidence
I think Mr Ashby is spot on when he writes that girls ‘frequently attributed success and failure to external factors, such as luck and the perceived difficulty of a question.’ I’m often frustrated that talented bright girls don’t take any credit for their own skills – it’s almost as if it’s not cool for them to do so – they have no role models who are good at maths – no-one to aspire to – so why should they be. If only every up and coming female celeb was as forthright about maths as Carol Vorderman…

I disagree, however, with the the author of the paper when he writes: ‘The reason for this is currently unclear and warrants further research.’ From reading the ALPS book, which draws from a range of well-known brain-based learning research, including Howard Gardner, it is clear that high achieving girls in particular have a problem with their concept of intelligence. They think they can’t learn more past a certain point – that they have reached the limit of their intelligence. I spend much of my time with higher achieving girls teaching them the attitude of resilience rather than discrete knowledge or skills. Not that I’ve cracked it yet…

Self-belief
This is a big problem at our school. So many of our children have convinced themselves that they are no good at maths. Some parents tell them that they were no good at maths either. It’s also not cool to be good at maths.

We have tried some things that have addressed the balance. Maths happens first now each day, so that children can do it when they are most alert. We also use sets in Key Stage 2 so that the range of ability is not so vast as it once was. This helps both the teachers, who have less differentiation to sort out, and the children who can see that everyone in the group suffers from the same amount of struggle.

We have also tried maths classes for parents, but so fare only a small number (10 or so) have taken it up – but I think changing parental attitudes is key.

I’ll be back on Scalextric tomorrow.

Football in Education

I get very excited each time the World Cup comes around, in a way that always surprises me. You see, I’m not much of a football fan really – I follow Birmingham City and make it to a one match every couple of seasons and much of the way football is run disgruntles me – the seemingly dodgy businesses representing many clubs and the rather arrogant timing such as in 2005 when the Premiership started before England had finished winning the Ashes and in 2008 when again the Premiership started before the Olympics had finished.

 

However I really enjoy the World Cup (and have done since I spent a joyful 90 minutes with two friends hitting the screen with cricket stumps and elastic bands aged 10 during that infamous Germany v. Austria game of the 1982 World Cup) and I enjoy the opportunities it brings into my classroom and my key stage.

 

This year the host country, beinng South Africa, has provided some great opportunities for maths, writing, history, geography and music. And that’s before we even get to the World Cup.

 

When it comes to the World Cup, I’m looking forward to a range of different maths things to do with the data of the World Cup. The Fifa website is a good source for this, but unfortunately much of the interactive stuff is filtered out by our LA, so a safer option is the Schools Fantasy League, although this does involve paying money (it’s well worth it for older Key Stage 2 children particularly). For one off lessons I’ve often found the Primary resourceswebsite to be a good one. In school we use Espresso and that always has a good set of resources that you can use for a longer sequence of lessons.

 

The main thing in all this, however, is motivation. Certain year 6 boys are particularly difficult to motivate during the latter stages of the Summer term, due to their impending move to secondary school. Studying the world cup gives them a chance to use their maths skills in solving longer problems, with a purpose that keeps them focussed.

Vygotsky Diary 3

Some general comments about the last couple of days and some links to Vygotsky and Piaget…

Friday – Drayton Manor

I’m not sure that sitting on a bench with a load of lunch bags whilst the class of children run around a theme park counts. I certainly don’t know how to compare what I’ve done today with what I know of Vygotsky and Piaget.

Go on. I suppose there is one thing I was thinking of. The children have gone round the park today in unsupervised groups of 2-6, checking back in with the teachers at hourly intervals. When I first proposed this system, my colleagues were horrified that I was suggesting letting the children go off unsupervised – but it has worked really well for the last four years. The children have not only to demonstrate independence and teamwork, but also the ability to tell the time… There is something Piagetian in this. The children are ready for this level of independence, whereas a couple of years ago they wouldn’t have been. There are some children who struggle, but they’re helped by their peers. There are also some children who, either by familiarity with the park (i.e. they have been there many times before) or by their own internal confidence, seem to demonstrate too much independence – they didn’t check back in when we were expecting them, but were still fine.

Monday – SRE (Sex and Relationships Education) Theatre.

Every year we have a marvellous theatre company coming in to help us with our SRE for Year 6. They’re called Loudmouth and what’s brilliant about them is that they use actors to teach all the tricky bits of SRE. They develop empathy for the opposite gender, so that boys see what girls have to go through and girls see what boys have to go through, and they encourage children to think about what emotions they are causing in others by their words and their actions. Also it means that in any further discussions in class I can refer to Daniel or Claire (the characters in the play) rather than either talking generically or inappropriately talking from personal experience.

In terms of ‘readiness’ the children are in exactly the right place to receive this – they’re all curious about the changes they are about to go through in puberty (or for some ‘are already going through’) and they will have heard much rubbish either from friends or from the media that has confused them.

It’s interesting watching the play as they use a lot of humour to teach the tricky bits and also to say some of the tricky words to do with SRE. I reckon humour increases the size of the ZPL. The children (and staff) were put at ease by the humour and learned loads more as a consequence. Ah, constructivism – you’re winning out today…

Vygotsky Diary 2

Here’s my second day of reflection in diary format. Remember ‘ZPL’ stands for Zone of Proximal Learning.

Thursday 10:10am. Shouted at a girl for not listening at a crucial point. More behaviourism. She took a while to even get a ZPL back again. I wasted learning time for her. In rest of lesson I had to do lots of mini-one-to-ones to scaffold the activity, even for the more able. Children a bit less engaged today, but then it’s very warm, in the classroom and seems like a good day for being outside. I wonder if it’s been proved that the weather affects the size of the ZPL in a child?

Thursday 3:10pm. Managed to achieve some social motivation this afternoon – children worked well in groups on group display for their adopt-a-country topics. Have talked much about good working and promised a reward of freetime outside if they could all pull their wait. More behaviourism. I wonder what a ZPL looks like when it’s about learning social skills?

Thursday 7:30pm. Heavy going in meeting after school. Air thick with pollen and humidity making it difficult for me to concentrate. Was challenged a couple of times beyond what I felt I could cope with, although on a normal day I might have managed. Had an hour or so back in my comfort zone now (home) – a place I need to reflect on the times when I’ve moved beyond my ZPL into ‘danger’ territory. This is bringing back memories of what I learnt studying ALPS in terms of engaging children in the kind of cycle that is conducive to learning. I wonder if I don’t return children often enough to the comfort zone so they can reflect on their learning. Need to think on, although I doubt I’ll be doing much reflecting at the theme park tomorrow…

Vygotsky Diary

For today and the following four days I’m going to reflect on my teaching according to what I understand of constructivism and behaviourism. I’ve called it Vygotsky Diary because I would like to think that I am heavily influenced by the whole Zone of Proximal Learning thing. I’ve called it ‘ZPL’ for short below. Here’s todays entries, each made within minutes of a lesson either finishing or starting…

Wednesday 8:10 am – SEN teacher said she was using laptops for rest of children so that she could do tests 1:1 with the other children with the appropriate support – made me think that Vygotsky’s theory about scaffolding within the ZPL shouldn’t be applied to tests, but actually we do because we don’t give children enough independence to do tests.

Wed 12:15 pm– Tried a very tricky lesson teaching decimal grid references (the kind Google Maps uses) to mixed ability Year 6 maths group. 5 key areas of prior learning needed – time, angles, co-ordinates, decimals and negative numbers – children find it very hard to connect multiple areas of prior learning (i.e. to add it to their scheme). Especially when prior to this week their grid reference scheme was pretty much blank. Very long into required, but by end over half children could accurately locate (52.45, -3.45) on a map (it’s a place in Wales called Llanidloes). It made me realise that sometimes I expect children’s ZPL to be very large – then I have to do LOADS of scaffolding for the less able children. More able children usually have a larger ZPL (and indeed find small step learning frustrating) whereas less able children need smaller steps.

Wed 3:15pm – Children were doing free choice projects this afternoon. I was working with individuals and groups on their 6 weeks plans to encourage children to think about how they can achieve a substantial piece of work by planning well. It’s been more about encouraging good social behaviour than direct teaching. I worry that the outcomes will require too much teacher support when this is a chance for the children to delve into self-directed study and develop their own intrinsic motivation. Behaviourist theory would suggest that I should offer rewards, but not all the time and with some degree of randomness. This should encourage intrinsic motivation. The problem is that if the intrinsic motivation hasn’t developed enough over the next six weeks, the projects will look awful and I’ll look like a bad teacher. Hence sometimes there is a pressure to over-scaffold children. I’ve also noticed a lot of behaviourism in how I speak to children – I expect them to automatically apologise if they’ve made a mistake and I spend a lot of time emphasising this. Oh, the Pavlov in me is coming out at last…

Vygotsky and Pavlov

Being one of the few people to have the Karelian National Anthem on my computer does not, unfortunately, qualify me to discuss at length the two Russian psychologists in the title.

Neither of them probably even went to Karelia.

However it is refreshing in my latest piece of work from MAST to be reminded of their work in relation to what is currently going on in my school. Refreshing because it was a long time ago that was introduced to them and their theories. It is good to go back sometimes. It is also disappointing that in many schools we do not talk about the nature of education enough. We get on and do it, quite often without thinking it through. It is also ironic that it was only yesterday that I wrote the word Vygostky for the first time in ten years, on my previous blog entry.

Vygotsky is the chap who, at teacher training college, you get introduced to right after Piaget. Without them there could be no education. Between the two of them they have fathered something called constructivism or cognitive learning. Piaget seemed to have developed the idea that you can’t learn some things until you’re ready for them – he had 4 stages going up to about 11 years old which is about when a child has developed the ability to hypothesise and think logically. For him a child was a lone explorer in a world of learning. I think.

Vygotsky had this idea of a zone of proximal learning, which is where a child can best learn something when it’s near enough to the current understanding to be challenging, but not so far that the child is scared to take the risk. His approach was much more about appropriate scaffolding and relationships.

Pavlov, on the other hand, was the bad behaviorist man who made dogs salivate.

Of the three, I like to think that my approach is more of the Vygostky. I came across the zone of proximal learning when I studied the ALPS (accelerated learning in primary schools) approach a few years ago – the one thing that has most affected the way I teach. I like the way it merges with so much other good stuff, like the multiple intelligences from Howard Gardner and the 12 aspects of learning from the Excellence and Enjoyment document. I do however resort to behaviourism to manage behaviour. I guess that’s an obvious connection. I do use a lot of rewards and sanctions in training the children to be motivated learners as doing so provides a framework for everyone within the group to learn safely.

Sitting at home right now I can theorise and postulate, but it will be interesting over the next week to see how I think each lesson has been – more constructivist or more behaviourist. My prediction is that it will vary from day to day, but on Friday when we take the kids to a theme park there will be an awful lot of behaviourism going on…

Page 8

Page 8 wonders what I think or know about each of the following:

  • Discovery Learning
  • Investigation
  • Barriers to Learning
  • Interviewing
  • Spiral Curriculum
  • Readiness
  • Differentiation

Here goes:

Discovery learning is that vague stuff that was around in the 70s that meant I never learned to hold a pen properly. I read some stuff in an Ian Thompson edited book about maths that didn’t have anything positive to see about child initiated discovery learning in relationship to maths, saying instead that discovery learning had to be adult initiated and often adult guided in the early years in maths for it to have any impact. Interesting.

Investigation in maths is when you give children an maths problem and then guide them into solving it. You often have to give a lot of guidance as children who are used to a ‘skills based curriculum’ have often only learnt maths methods and not problem solving skills. One of my favourites is the one about what is the most common outcome of rolling 2 dice, because you can combine experimentation (actually rolling the dice) with theory (when you use a table to solve the problem precisely).

Barriers to learning means stuff that stops you learning. It could be attendance or your mum telling you that she was no good at maths so you won’t be either. It could also be your 11+ tutor teaching you bus stop when you don’t really get the difference between sharing and grouping.

Interviewing. I’m not really sure what this is in a maths context. I did some interviewing on my fractions video (see below) but I’m not sure if that is what this means.

Spiral curriculum is where you have a curriculum that keeps coming back to the same area on a regular basis so that the children can build on previous knowledge. It’s a nice idea but the timings we use in the UK are all wrong. The spiral should be 1 day, 1 week, 1 month, 1 year. Not every term.

Readiness is the idea that you can’t learn some things until your ready for them. It works on the short term (I can’t learn this because my mind is buzzing with the way that girl insulted me at playtime) and on the longer term (I can’t learn that concept about adding on 2, because I don’t really understand what 2 is). Making children ready to learn is about connecting their learning with the real world and with previous learning, providing motivation and engaging them. It’s a mark of creativity.

Differentiation is when you making the learning suit the learner. This can be by varying the way they access the learning, changing the level of the learning and providing greater scaffolding. I have a dim memory from college that either Piaget or Vigotsky indicated that a single teacher could only differentiate three ways. (I mean for three different groups of children , not with different methods of differentiation.) But I might be making that up.

Differention is also something I did at university on my engineering degree. Second Order Differential Equations. They were very hard. I’m glad I’m a primary school teacher.

Mathematical Feelings

As part of the MAST programme, I am asked to record my initial thoughts and feelings on mathematics. I see this as a sort of mathematical autobiography, with which I will continue shortly, however in the meantime, a little tangent into the quantity and variety of data storage options available to a person…

The MAST programme, of which I am a part, has a rather confusing array of places to store information. There are discussion areas, chat rooms and an online journal, which all exist on Blackboard, Edge Hill University’s virtual learning environment. In addition there is a personal learning log which exists as a downloadable Word file, but is also handed out in hardcopy at local area meetings. And there is a rather large ring binder file to go with it. My own principle is that I need just one place to put things and it is right here ( a principle that I set out in my first post: ‘Starting in One Place’).

Mysterious Maths

Having a mathematician for a father meant that maths always held a slight air of mystery to me as a child. It was his job and his passion. A bit like Gandalf in ‘The Hobbit’ – an appropriate metaphor as my dad has an affinity for (and a beard like), Tolkien’s famous wizard. So, just as you always get the idea that Gandalf knows more than anyone else does about what’s going on, while Bilbo (the hobbit) and the thirteen dwarves all trundle from one problematic frying pan into yet another life-threatening fire, it was the same with my father and maths. I always had the idea that it was marvellous, mysterious and magical – yet he would always know a little bit more than me. And he still does.

Triumphs and Failures

I’ve had various mathematical landmarks. The Year 4 teacher who managed to teach me long division was an inspiration – my maths really took off under her wing. Then at secondary school an over-reliance on rote and the calculator (I distinctly remember typing 2+2= while trying to solve one problem when I was about 13) meant that I often failed to see the big picture of what I was trying to work out, seeing only the taught method instead. This is something I strive against as a primary teacher – I want children to have a concept of what they are doing to number when they use a method, but as the methods got more and more advanced at ‘A’ levels, the maths got more and more disconnected from real life for me and I struggled to ‘get it’. While I achieved a ‘B’ in maths ‘A’ level, I only scraped an ‘E’ in further maths and I continued to struggle with maths through university (electrical engineering) – being able to just about manage the methods of second order differentiation, but not really understand why I was doing it – I certainly can’t remember much of that level of maths now.

Pedagogical Prescription

It was primary teaching and particularly the national numeracy strategy with it’s emphasis on mental methods above written ones that brought enthusiasm back for maths. Some people complain about the prescriptive nature of the primary curriculum, referring to the written methods that are taught, but I never really got stuck on that, choosing to bring myself and children back to the mental methods whenever I could. Over the last five years as a maths leader, I have tried to instill this ‘mental methods first’ ethos in my colleagues and it is here that my interest in school leadership really began (although that really is another story) because I discovered it is far easier to change children as a class teacher than when you’re not a class teacher…

My current big question in maths is: ‘Is there one successful pedagogy for all groups of children?” By this I mean, can you teach all children using just one approach (as the national numeracy strategy back in1996 hoped)? I suspect that the answer is ‘no’:

  • less able groups of children need a sccaled down approach with an emphasis on basic number skills;
  • middle ability groups need the kind of approach advocated in the national numeracy strategy with a progression of methods that build on previous ones, leading to formal written methods;
  • more able children need a variety of methods and should be given opportunities to use and apply them independently to different situations.

I suspect this only. I have no proof. I need to do more reading, more research and talk to more people to find out…