Saturday, September 22, 2012

The ten commandments of CPD

Ah, in-services and CPD sessions. How we love them. So if you've recently agreed to offer a bit of training for your colleagues, then trust me, what you need is our very own free cut-out-and-keep guide to providing high-quality CPD and getting out alive. Sitting comfortably? OK, read on, to learn our top ten - in reverse order, of course...

10: Stick to time
Our time is precious - if we gave you a half hour slot, then that is your lot, and for good reason. If you are really incapable of speaking to a specified length of time. then you're not much of a teacher. Are you stunned when bells ring in your own school? Haven't you learned to tell the time? If you're not capable of self-editing then we really, really don't want to know.

9: If you're not an expert, then feck off
If you begin your talk with "Now I'm not here to tell you anything you don't already know", then don't be surprised to hear me get up, head to the door and say "In that case I have some marking to do." We've come here to hear what you have to say, so you bloomin' well should have something to tell us. And get on with it. We're busy people. Don't try to win us over by reassuring us that you'll be finishing 15 minutes early so we can have cake. All that will happen is we'll have the cake, but still think you're  useless.

8: Stop showing us facile diagrams
Ooh, I've got three things all to do with one other thing. Ooh, look, I can arrange them in a triangle, with arrows. Ooh look, I have the mental age of three...

Look, we can cope with the idea of there being three things, and them being interlinked - though probably what you're talking about is cobblers anyway, and the link is about as strong as my claim to be the fifth cousin once removed of Len Goodman off Strictly Come Dancing (true) - so just because you're excited by the idea of three vertices making a triangle, don't expect us to be. Stop it. Walk away from the powerpoint.

7: Don't give us sheets of A2 paper and ask us to "brainstorm"
That's not why we're here. See 9 above - you're the expert, so get on with it. And please, if you must fill time by getting us to brainstorm (or mindfart, or whatever you want to call it), please don't get us to proudly pin all our bits of paper round the room, and then tell us not to worry, and promise that you'll get all the contents written up, and email them to us later. Why the hell would you do that? What if the actual content of some of the bits of paper are, to put it mildly, pish? Let's face it, the chances are the Science department haven't written anything and have just drawn a willy instead - are you going to copy that as well? Yeesh.

6: Be prepared to cite your sources
If you're really going to tell me that kids learn better when they are in groups, or flashmobs, or dressed as pirates, then you had damn well better have the details of your research ready. I'm fed up with people saying "research shows that in Finland every child has three bums", and then drawing a blank when I ask for the source for the research. And just so we're clear: The Daily Mail is not a research journal, Feng Shui is not a science, and the plural of "anecdote" is damn well not data.

There you go, I gave you those for free.

5: Don't try to sell us a quick fix

Education is a tricky business, and we teachers have learned the hard way that snake oil is useless, unless you happen to need some snake oil. Trust me, you haven't revolutionised teaching, even if you think you have. There is nothing really new under the sun, though you might have some nice packaging and a snappy acronym. And if you really think EVERY lesson should be a four-part lesson, then please leave us so we can carry on working in the real world. You're clearly as happy as hell in yours, but we have a job to do, and we don't drive Porsches either. Odd that.

4: Stop mentioning the 21st Century
Look, I hate to break it to you, but the 21st Century is here. It's arrived. We're over one tenth of the way through it. Going on about  "21st Century learners" is like going on about 21st Century air. It's here, it's happened. Stop saying this like it's something new, or like something astonishing happened. We added one to 1999 and it became 2000. That's it. Nothing new here.

I mean, for goodness' sake, Bill Clinton was going on about "building a bridge to the 21st century" back in 1996, and it was embarassing enough then. When are you going to drop this - in 2051, once we're past the half-way mark?

3: Let your nouns be nouns
We are teachers. We have a duty to uphold the highest standards, and that includes in our use of language. So leave those nouns alone, and adjust your use of jargon accordingly. Turning a noun into a verb doesn't impress us. So don't tell us that we need to "evidence pupils' learning", or "calendar an assessment". At the very least, do your best to un-asshole. That's all we ask.

And while we're on the subject: leave your acronyms and buzzwords and jargon at home. For example, if anyone has ever learned anything, then trust me, they didn't do so inactively, or passively. Ergo, "active" learning is a tautology. So give it a rest.

2: Don't just read out your slides
Is that all you've got? Seriously? You come all the way to our school, set up your whizzy powerpoint, and then just read the whole thing out? Why not just email the slides to us and stay home? In fact, why not let us stay at home as well? Oh, and for the record: 12 point Times font can NEVER, EVER be read "at the back", so don't even bother asking. The only reason we're not complaining is that we're already asleep.

1: Give us some nuance and some intelligence
Given that there are no quick fixes, then for heaven's sake let's show a bit of intelligence. Let's be open to debate, and acknowledge the difficult job we all have. Stop pretending that things like WALT and WILF and Learning Intentions imbue teachers with superpowers and magic wands when they are simply one possible way of trying to do the job a bit better, and when even the "creators" of such ideas have expressed reservations about their universal, uncritical use. Talk reasonably and sensibly and show us that you do possess a brain of your own. Do that, and we might begin to believe that we're on the same side.

There you go. I'm more than happy to hear other suggestions, but I reckon these aren't bad rules to live by. Good luck with those evaluation sheets!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

I love it when a seating plan comes together…

Before kicking off, let me make it clear that I’m not teaching granny to suck eggs here. But if you are new to the teaching profession, or wondering about the best way to arrange your classroom, it may be that I can at least offer some food for thought.

And so we begin.

For those of us in Scotland, the new academic year is beginning to bear down on us – fewer than two weeks to go. Not long now until we meet our new classes (or nearly-new, for those of us who have the joy of the June start, ie a few weeks of running through the “new” timetable… difficult to explain this to anyone outside of Scotland, and nae wonder) – and not long until they meet us.

How, then, to start off? Do you use a seating plan?

I know of old hands in teaching who don’t bother. Get them in the door, then move the more obvious culprits from the back of the room to the front, and off we go. And I know of some newer teachers who have committed to having a different seating plan, more or less randomly generated, for every lesson, so that the pupils get a chance to work in different groups.

Both types of teachers have my admiration, but I confess I’m still a fan of the seating plan. I can – and will – give quite a few reasons for this, but for the main one, let me take you back a few years. Cue harp music representing flashback sequence…

It’s my first week in my first year of secondary school – heck, let’s just say it’s the first day. It probably was. My class, class 1C1, has been round a few classes already – English, I seem to recall, and Science, and what have you. In each class we’ve wandered into the room and found our way to seats – our choice.  Next up is History with Miss M. We find our way to the room and she is waiting right at the door to welcome us (for which she would still get brownie points today from HMI). I’m not paying much attention and I give her a friendly nod as I walk into the door when suddenly I’m not walking any more. She has her hand barring the doorway.

“And where do you think you’re going?” she asks. I’m about to point out that I’m quite obviously trying to get into the classroom, but she’s already asking me for my name, and showing me on her plan (which I only now notice in her hand) exactly where I’m to sit.

And to this day I can remember thinking:

This is not a teacher to be messed with.

That’s your main reason, right there. An immediate message to the new class: my house, my rules, my seating plan. Now to be fair, some kids may object to this – to which I can only say, good. You’ll never have a better chance to quash any complaints than on day one with a new class, so just go for it.  (And let’s face it, if you decide to give the kids free choice, and then decide a few weeks later that you really need to rearrange the seating because of all the riots and murder and whatnot, the kids will object all the more.)

Remember also a fairly basic premise: knowledge is power. If wee Darren is playing silly buggers at the back of the room, it’s a damn sight easier to call him to order if you know his name. So if you are going to use a seating plan, you’d better learn it, and fast, otherwise you’re operating at 50% power from the get-go. True story: I once took over a class who had been through any number of teachers, mainly supply, because of staffing difficulties. I drew up a seating plan before I met the class and, with a bit of effort, I learned the plan by heart, so that by the end of the lesson I was able – party piece ahoy – to go round the class and name each pupil, one by one, without recourse to any bits of paper. I then pointed out to the class that they would no longer be able to complain to their parents that their maths teacher(s) didn’t even know their name. It made an impact, I can assure you. (If you need help with memorisation techniques, by the way, go google. Heck, even Derren Brown will give you tips to get started. And if you still need convincing that knowing names is a powerful matter, here's a clip from Doctor Who where the good Doctor manages to evaporate a baddy just by naming them. Works for me.)

Now, for a few other reasons:

It’s an unspoken law that when pupils arrive and are given a free choice, then (a) the seats fill from the back of the room forwards, and (b) males and females tend to sit apart. (a) is obviously a daft idea – which is why old hands will move some of the kids at the back straight off. But based on what, exactly? How they look? Whether or not they are called Wayne? OK, so the truly worst offenders may well have tried to stab someone by now, but I doubt your super Spidey-teacher powers are so good that you can identify any and all trouble makers within three minutes of meeting the class. Much better, I’d argue, to go for a “random” (of which more anon) seating plan. One which, incidentally, manages to mix up the sexes so that boys and girls DO sit together, thereby dealing with (b). I mix them up not only because there’s a fair chance that behaviour will be better, but also because I think it’s not a bad idea to engineer an opportunity for daft wee ladies to be able to say at least a few words to not quite so daft wee lassies without breaking into a sweat. Well, they probably will sweat initially, but they’ll get there in the end. Trust me, if teachers didn’t mix classes up in this way, there’d be some lads out there who wouldn’t say a word to a girl for six years. (We should probably have seating plans in staff rooms, now I come to think of it, and for exactly the same reasons.)

Next, there’s no point in pretending that you are drawing up the seating plan in a vacuum, that is to say, in an absence of information about the pupils to be entrusted into your care. Even if you are new to the school, I’d be astonished if you weren’t given all manner of information – too much information, to be honest – about your pupils. And if such information is not forthcoming from the Support for Learning Department, or Learning Support Department, or Guidance Department… then get out there and ask for it, pronto. Otherwise you will be unaware that Wayne has fallen out with Dwayne and so they must not be seated together; that Darryl is blind in one eye and so has to be seated at the front and right; that Carryl is deaf in one ear and must be seated at the front and left; and that Mac the Knife earned his nickname the hard way and must be kept away from the safety scissors. Throw in the fact that every second kid has an inhaler and/or allergy to strawberry cheesecake, and hey presto, your seating plan now begins to resemble a Sudoku puzzle. That’s no reason not to draw up the plan, by the way, and it does beg the question of how you cater for all these requirements if you are randomly generating those plans.

I could go on, but it’s time for a break. My next post will look in more detail at seating plans through the lens of a pretty important question: assuming you have any control over it, how are you going to set your room out? Will pupils sit in rows, in pairs? Singly? In groups? And if so, in threes, or fours, or… what, exactly?

Monday, July 23, 2012

App round-up

What with all the rain, I've been bored enough to do a quick hunt through iTunes and interweb-land to see if there's anything new in the way of Maths Apps - or rather Math Apps, as they tend to be called. I try to check every now and then - here's an old post on another blog giving a few good 'uns already - as these can be useful for telling kids/parents about. Or, of course, you could use them in class, if you happen to have an iPod and a way of displaying the output. (If you have an iPhone this is easy-peasy, by the way, but for Luddites like me with a wind-up iPod Touch, the best I can manage is to display the output using a visualiser. Don't have a visualiser? Lobby your Headteacher/HoD immediately!)

Anyway, I found a handful of decent enough apps, all free. First up, the good people of Loughborough University, who have developed "Mathscard" apps which give formulae for GCSE and for A/As Level.

Yes, yes, I know this is not much cop for a Scottish curriculum, but a formula is a formula, at the end of the day. And did I mention the free bit?

Next - and very much for the lower end of the market - comes a company calling itself Maths Tappers. Hmm. They have a few free apps to play with but the one that caught my eye is their "equivalents" app, which gets pupils to match fractions and percentages.

In my experience, the more practice pupils get at this sort of stuff, the better. You bet your life I'll be recommending the hell out of this one to all and sundry.

Now, is it still raining...? Yeesh.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

A bit of background

Well, summer is almost upon us, and the end of term is approaching just as surely as DVDs of “Braveheart” are showing in History classrooms across Scotland. Not long to go now, folks, yet already the next session begins to intrude. Ah, the joys of the June start to a new timetable, to say nothing of the three-day P7 visit. And just today I took delivery of my new Teacher’s Planner for session 2012-2013. I’m sad to admit I was more than a tad excited by this, and immediately set about colouring in the holidays in the calendar at the front.

But back to this blog… I’m still very much in the setting things up phase, so I may as well give a bit of background, because to a certain extent We Have Been Here Before. It may seem odd to link to some old blogs of mine, but what the heck, if it can bring any form of insight or pleasure then I’m up for it. 

And so, the list of blogs:

The Proof Is Out There
I’m still proud of that title. Yes, here is where it all began, with the Top Ten Mathematics Textbooks of all time (go look, it hasn’t changed much), and hymns of praise to marker pens of a certain brand. Eventually film reviews began to creep their way into TPIOT, which led to the launch of…

Maths Teacher Goes To The Movies
… which does exactly what it says on the tin. And, I might add, was once mentioned in the Times Education Supplement Scotland. However as my movie-going began to wane, so did the blog. Next up then:

I’m still embarrassed by that title. But appropriately enough this was an attempt to run a blog for teachers in and around Edinburgh that would highlight events, resources etc and generally be A Good Thing. It ran for quite a while and had, I like to think, something of a cult following. And no, that’s not a misprint. M4E is hosted on edublogs though, and eventually I got frustrated with the near-constant demands to upgrade to the Pro version (kerching) and the warnings of imminent memory death if I didn’t. And so I vowed to leave, heading off in search of a better life. Not having much in the way of any offers, I decided to head back to good old Blogger, though I do admit it’s taken me a while to get here. I did consider relaunching TPIOT but in the end I decided that a fresh start was called for. And so here we are.

OK, that's enough nostalgia. Onwards! As well as sharing resources, I do hope to take time to ruminate, fulminate and prevaricate over this whole business of education - maths education in particular. But right now, I can head some Maltesers calling...

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


My excitement knows no bounds, though to be fair I am seeing a doctor about it. This is a screengrab from the rather wonderful "Traffic" program, which forms part of the package The Language of Functions and Graphs. You'll find this in a variety of places - it's in the DfE's Standards Unit, for one thing - but it's taken me ages to find the actual program as opposed to the worksheets. Steps forward and take a bow, then, the wonderful people at the STEM resource library hingmy.

I remember this from back in the day, when it was part of the award-winning package called (seriously) The Shell Red Box, by Malcolm Swan. I used the wee computer program with a BBC micro - man, we were cutting edge at Beeslack High School in the 80's, I tell you - but it's good to see the graphics have been spruced up a bit.

My advice to you is just to get in and play, but be warned as you'll have to set up an account with the STEM folk first. Fear not, it's free. I used the first few examples in the program with my S3 class as we continued our journey (see what I did there) with Distance/Speed/Time, and you'll struggle to find a better introduction to Distance/Time graphs. You can play the situation through without the snapshots and graph and invite pupils to work together and agree their version of the graph. Show-me-boards ahoy!

Monday, June 11, 2012

And they're off!

OK, so clearly we have to do a bit of "welcome, welcome" stuff, what with this being a new blog and all. I also have to point in the general direction of my other blogs, just in case anyone still needs to catch up on the world-famous "Maths Teacher Goes To The Movies" blog (as featured in TES, folks!). But stuff that for a game of soldiers and on with the motley. There'll be time for hellos later.

So I'm teaching Distance/Speed/Time to my new S3 class, and I decided to look for some slightly more imaginative starters, as you do. A quick hunt round t'internet brought up Usain Bolt's world record time of  9.58 seconds for the 100m, set in Berlin in 2009. It's a nice enough question to ask the class to work out Bolt's speed in kilometres per hour, but an even better one is: should he have been arrested for speeding? It seems that in residential areas in Germany there's often a speed limit of 30kph.

There's even a clip you can show from youtube (along with annoying adverts, for which apologies):

See what your class think. I won't spoil things by telling you the answer.