Thursday, 27 October 2011

Why Touch Technology is what Mathematics Education has been Waiting for

For many years, mathematics education specialists have joined forces with software and hardware developers to create new tools for learning. But still, decades on, the mathematics classroom remains one largely about teacher exposition and bookwork practice. Technology has made little impact.
Yet, technology in mathematics can help to de-abstract-ise the subject. All those apparently meaningless processes that we have all been taught at some point in our lives can suddenly be made to come to life. Just watch a Gapminder animation or use a virtual manipulative and you will see what I mean. No longer does the mathematics teacher have to explain some new concept while drawing inadequate diagrams that contradict their words. Technology can solve this. So why hasn't it?
The answer is simple: the technology, although the solution, has also been the problem. Teachers, even those most adventurous and brave, will give up when the technology is a blocker, and until now it certainly has been – whether that be the unreliability of hardware, the sheer confusion of understanding the operations of a programme or the lack of logical pathways through a piece of software.
But touch technology, in the guise of an iPad or the like, brings with it what good design always should – an intrinsic understanding of how to operate it. There are no longer blockers. Through touch, interfaces suddenly make sense. They become natural when well written apps come to life.
The trouble, at the moment, is that no-one yet has taken the step of creating a truly difference-making, meaningful, student centered, pedagogically sound app for mathematics. But they are coming.
I have talked (ranted) for years now about the need for someone to create such an app and bemoaned the deluge of opportunistic, superficial apps that have flooded the market in anticipation of securing a slice of the enormous student/teacher/parent purchasing power cake. There are many apps for mathematics, but none that bring anything new to the equation. So I have been really excited recently by a group of developers that I have met who are creating a mathematics app that will up the ante and change the face of learning apps.
Through touch-tech, there is no longer the need to prelude the learning with lengthy instruction on using the technology or learning operating systems or the idiosyncrasies of a particular piece of software. The children in our schools are already at ease with using the devices and technology is a routine part of their lives.
So we can now take the step that was always the hope for technology in the classroom – to enhance active engagement, interaction, feedback, micro-teaching, analysis and problem-solving skills, make connections across and within subjects and contextualize and internalize the learning in a way that connects to students' own realities.
The tech can at last meet the curricular objectives.
Technology, and particularly hand-held technology, can create an environment where the teacher is effectively split into 30 individual teachers. With each student having access to information, prompts, reflections, guidance, challenges and support any time they need it. Students are no longer bounded by the need for a lesson to be timed for a group of children with wildly different abilities. The technology can take them on the learning journey, while teachers guide the experience like an orchestra conductor. The teacher is in turn freed up to actually teach – not just transmit information – they can work at the individual and group level. The student remains engaged in learning for a much greater proportion of the time because they have instant access to progression.
The relationship between student and teacher can be greatly enriched when technology is integrated effectively. This takes a shift-change in pedagogy, but teachers can take on the role of advisor, knowledgeable other, and mentor.  This shift-change will require investment in terms of time and money for teacher professional development - for every penny spent, I think the breakdown should be 20% on tech, 80% on teacher professional learning.  This is not just about how to use devices, but about what the pedagogical implications are for changing from the traditional transmitter of held knowledge to one of an artist creating the right environment for children to be knowledge creators.
And in mathematics, we can finally move towards what the subject is truly about. The technology can make school mathematics less focused on calculating and more on sythesising, modeling and interpreting. Students at any age can see visualisations of the most complex mathematics and draw inferences from them – mathematics is suddenly opened up as it should be.
With the internet, students are able to access any information that they need. Information is no longer the preserve of the teacher. So students can learn from external sources, or knowledgeable others, so that they themselves can become knowledge creators.
Unlike many technological devices of the past, touch-technology becomes simpler and more intrinsic as we move forward. In many aspects of life, touch-tech is now the interface that we meet. It is epitomised by its simplicity, by its universal approach of guiding the user through the process. This removes the apprehension that many people feel about technology. And this is a key point, for it is only those of us that are adults that feel this apprehension. To children in our schools it is simply part of their life. So through touch-tech, teachers are now able to feel comfortable about creating a tech-based learning envinronment, where they do not have to understand the technology or learn how to use a keyboard or mouse.
Touch technology is what mathematics education has been waiting for. It is the conduit that will allow the generations to come together and will remove teacher bias towards their comfort zone. We're not there yet, because appropriate apps have not yet been written, but they are just around the corner. Over the coming year, I believe that a product for mathematics will enter the market that will help us all to take the last steps to integrating technology in the classroom.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Michael Gove's speech, Conservative Party Conference 2011

Many people have asked me this week what I thought to the Secretary of State's speech at the Conservative Party Conference, and maybe at some point I will get round to writing up a response.
In the meantime, I thought that some of you might find it helpful to catch up with what was said if you were unable to attend the conference, so here is a transcript of Michael's speech.
(if there are spelling errors or such like, well tough, I was typing pretty damn fast!)
Note: Michael took to the stage immdiately following a speech by Quddus Akinwale, a pupil at Burlington Danes Academy.

There are some moments in politics you never forget. And I'll never forget the first time that I heard Quddus speak. It was at a fundraising event for ARK, the fantastic charity that supports so many brilliant schools.
And when I heard his story, I was moved. As I know many of you will have been.
And I vowed then that many more people would hear his story because it is inspirational. Quddus reminds us of the real face or London's young people. Ambitious, aspirational, loving their parents, proud of their school, wanting to do well in the future. And I think if there's one image that we should carry away from this year of young London, it is Quddus and everything that he stands for.
There's another moment that stays in my mind, and that's a moment that occured when I was in China, last November on a trip with the Prime Minister. I was being shown around a school in Beijing and the headmaster handed over a book just as I crossed the threshold. I opened it and I saw lots of Chinese characters and then the odd word in English and the odd equation. "Thank you for showing me your text book," I said. He smiled pittingly at me. "It's not a textbook," he said, "this is actually a collection of all the papers in academic journals which have been published by people in this school." "That's amazing," I said, "the teachers, as well as having time to teach all the students also have time to do their own academic research. That's fantastic!" And he paused and smiled at me pittingly again and he said, "it's not the teachers who are writing the academic papers, it's the children."
Think about it. On the other side of the globe, there are15, 16 and 17 children educated so well that they can hold their own with the world's graduates and post-gradutes. If anyone asks why it is that our education system needs reform and change, remember that fact. In other countries, not just in east Asia, but in Canada, in the United States, in Australia and in New Zealand, education systems are being reformed because every single one of those nations knows that unless they are at the top of the education tree, unless they're making sure that more young people have the skills and the knowledge that they need to succeed, that their countries will fall further and further back in the global race for prosperity.
And one of the sad things about the last few years, is that under the last government we fell back in the global league tables for education.
We used to be 4th in the world for the quality of our science education and now we're 16th. We used to be 7th in the world for the quality of our children's literacy and we're now 25th. We used to be 8th in the world for the quality of their maths and now we're 28th. And it's not just our national pride that has knocked by this decline. What it means is that for millions of young people who've been through the education system under Labour they go in to a world economically more competitive than ever, where demands are more strenuous then ever, where jobs at the moment are scarcer than ever. And they are not as well equipped as children in other countries to succeed, to win those jobs, and to win those college places.
And that is why I am so angry about whay happened under the last government. Because I fear that they failed those whom they were elected to serve: the next generation.
And what makes it worse is that the big divide in education in England is not between us and other nations. The really big divide in education in England is between rich and poor. There are five schools that serve some of the richest children in England that get more children in to Oxford and Cambridge than 2000 of the schools that serve our poorest young people. No one can believe that that is either fair or just. From an economic point of view, it is an act of self harm to leave so many talented young people from poorer background in a position where they cannot use their talents. There are young men and women across this country, every bit as intelligent and bright and ambitious as Quddus, that are not getting the chance to become the engineers of the future because our education system hasn't equipped them as it should. And we are all losing out.
And that is why when people say what is this government doing for growth, I say the best long term growth strategy is a school reform strategy.
But it is not just about economics. It is also about social justice as well.
John Dunne once said that no man is an island entire unto itself. And we know what he meant. We know that I am my brother's keeper. We know that we have a responsibility to others in our society beyond simply paying our taxes and obeying the law. We know that the parable of the good Samaritan made the point that the Pharisee and the Levite, even though they obeyed the law, even though they were respectable figures, were found wanting because when someone was in need they walked by on the other side.
We're not going to walk by on the other side.
We are not going to leave those who have been languishing in poor schools and in poor schools for far too long to wait for another saviour. Children only have one childhood, it's the most precious time of anyone's life. And we want to be there to make sure that they are happy, fulfilled and that they are successful in the future.
And if we need to be reminded of the consequences of allowing children to grow up in poverty, not just material poverty but with a poverty of aspiration and a poverty of hope, then we were reminded this August of what it means to allow children to grow up without the right values.
The first and most important thing to say about the riots which scarred so many parts of urban Britain is that, when we look at them, we need to keep moral clarity. It's important to recognise that what we saw on our streets was a conflict between right and wrong. Between the police who were working so bravely to ensure that we were safe and a lawless, thuggish minority, amoral, contemptuous of the rules by which the rest of us live, intent only on the pleasure of the moment, people who had nothing to lose and were thumbing their nose at all the values that keep our society civilised.
But at the same time as we must maintain that moral clarity as our first response, we also have to recognise that a truly ordered society can't be kept peaceful by having every night thousands of uniformed officers policing our streets. Our streets will only really be safe when millions of individuals police themselves and make sure that they exercise self-restraint, self-discipline and self-respect.
And that's why it is so important that those values are instilled in the home and in school.
That's why, in the work that I do, with my colleagues in the Department for Education, I am so anxious that we should make that children have the best possible start in life. That's why we should emphasise that the most important job that any man can have is being a father. And that your responsibility to your child is life long. If you were there at your child's conception, you should be there for the rest of their life.
And schools have an important role to play as well because we all know that one of the sadnesses of our time has been that so many of those children who believed that they had nothing to lose were children who had been failed by our school system.
Let me repeat again the overwhelming majority of our young people do well at school. The overwhelming majority of our schools and teachers are doing a fantastic job. But it's still the case that far too many of our children are failed.
Sixty percent of white boys eligible for free school meals at the age of 14 are incapable of reading properly.
And there is an iron clad link between illiteracy and criminality. There are children who arrive at primary school from disorganised and dysfunctional homes, there is indiscipline in some schools, they are not taught properly to read at an early age. They arrive at secondary school incapable of following the rest of the curriculum. So they act up, they act tough, they cause disruption, they risk becoming excluded. Many of them will truant and as a result they become the recruits of the gangs of tomorrow.
Because it is so vital to break that link, it's one of my aims to do everything possible to eliminate illiteracy in England. If you can't read, then you are condemned forever to live in a prison house of ignorance. And for those children who can never read, they are all too often the recruits for our prisons of tomorrow. Because we know that more than three quarters of young men in prison are functionally illiterate. They've been failed by a system that didn't ensure that they had hope, that's the reason that so many of them went off the rails and that's why it's so important that we get reading right.
And that's why I'm so glad that my deputy Nick Gibb is a passionate crusader for better reading. He's the person who's been responsible for making sure that every school will receive additional funding so children are schooled in the best method of learning to read: systematic sythentic phonics. He's going to make sure that every child at the age of six is screened, so that any children who are falling behind, whether they are dyslexic or have been poorly taught can be identified and supported. And it's also why Nick is leading a campaign to make sure that children also learn to read for enjoyment. That the glories of English literature, the best that has been thought and written are passed on to the next generation. So that the heritage that is there for all of us, and which all of us in this hall can enjoy, becomes every child's inheritance. And for that crusading zeal, I'm so grateful to Nick.
Now, when we reflect on what happened this summer, there's one image which I know for many of us will sum up everything that went wrong. And that the image of the CarpetRight Warehouse in Tottenham, which was in flames. Torched by people who simply didn't have a respect for property, a respect for their community. And one of the many sadnesses about that image is that the person who owned that warehouse, the person who founded CarpetRight, the person who's given jobs to many young people is a great man, a great supporter of this party, Phil Harris, Lord Harris of Peckham. And the great thing about Phil is that as someone who has built his business by the sweat of his brow, he has ensured that now that he has time and a little bit of money on his hands, that time and that money is devoted to giving thousands of children a better start in life. He's set up a chain of academies across the whole of south London, taking schools out of Local Authority control when they were failing, given them great headteachers, like Greg and Sally and made sure that those schools embody what the best independent schools embody as well. So those schools have great discipline, a proper uniform, there's no bullying in the playground, and there's respect for teachers in the classroom. They teach traditional subjects in a rigorous way and they have uniformly high aspirations for all children whatever background they come from. And under Phil's leadership, those academy schools have made amazing strides forward. There's one school that he took over in Peckham, which when he took it over from the Local Authority had only five percent of children, one in twenty, getting five good GCSEs. In just a few years, thanks to his leadership and academy status, those numbers increased by ten, by a thousand percent, fifty percent of children getting five good GCSEs. And what's been achieved in the Harris Academy chains is being achieved in academies across the country. We heard a little bit about what's happening in Burlington Danes, but it's not just in London. In Leeds there is a an amazing woman called Ross McMullen, the principal of David Young Academy, who is transforming education for poor children in West Yorkshire. Just down the road, here in Manchester, in Moss Side, a school that used to be one of the worst in the country is now transformed thanks to a wonderful headteacher called Kathy August. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was in Nottingham, visiting the poorest part of that city and there's a school there, Nottingham Academy, led by another wonderful headteacher, Barry Day, which is now ensuring that every child learns a foreign language from the age of five and that every child regards themselves as university material. It's that level of aspiration and that commitment to excellence, which is the best of British education and I think that we should show that Conservatives are on the side of those hero and heroine headteachers who are fighting to give the next generation the best possible chance.
And we are on their side because those academy schools are essentially the children of the City Technology Colleges that were set up by Lord Baker, Ken Baker, one of the best education secretaries this country has ever seen, a visionary reformer who inspires us today.
So the schools are essentially a Tory invention. And it's thanks to the election of a Tory Prime Minister that we now have 1000 academies open. We inherited just 200 from Labour and we've increased the number massively and at the same time we now have 1.2 million children benefiting from academy status, academy education, real excellence in education. It's an achievement of which you should be proud.
And as we saw in the video earlier, these new schools are being joined by 24 new free schools and shortly they will be joined by new University Technical Colleges, schools which are devoted to giving children, from the age of 14, a superb training in vocational and technical education. Again, it's thanks to Lord Baker that these schools are being started, and I hope that when we announce them that we will be able to repair the historic gap in our education system that has existed since the second world war. Countries like Germany have had a superb technical education for children that want it, we haven't. For far too long the technical, the vocational, the craft skills, the apprenticeship route has been undervalued in our society. Now at last this coalition government is making sure that those who pursue a vocational or technical course can hold their head up high with the same degree of pride as anyone who pursues an academic course in life.
So new schools but also, and most important of all, a new attitude for the entire education system. This government is unambiguously on the side of teachers. And we know that there are three things that are critical if we are going to support teachers in the work that they do. The idealistic, inspiring, world changing work that they do. We need to back them on discipline, we need to give them a curriculum and set of exams which are fit for purpose, and we need to make sure that they can take pride in their profession.
So what are we doing on discipline? Well we're making sure that teachers have the powers they've been denied for too long. The powers to search children for items that might cause disruption, the power to impose detention on the same day that school rules are broken, the power to exclude disruptive children and know that that decision won't be overturned by bureaucrats outside the school, and the power to be protected from the sort of false and malicious allegations that undermine those teachers who are going the extra mile to keep order.
And on exams and the curriculum? Rigor is back. We know that people enter the classroom because they love their subject and they want other children to be inspired by it as well, so what we are doing is making sure that the dumbing down of our exam system ends. At GCSE level we're sweeping away modules, we're insisting that once again marks be given for spelling, punctuation and grammar. We're asking universities and academic experts to help us ensure that our exams are the best in the world. And we've already said that we're going to judge schools explicitly on whether or not they are teaching children more of the hard and rigorous subjects that universities and employers want and fewer of the sorts of soft subjects that were fashionable under the last government but condemned so many children to unemployment and poor prospects. And that's why, that's why, I'm so glad that in the last year as a result of those changes that we've made, we've seen the number of students studying history and geography and modern languages rise by 25 percent. And I'm so pleased, in particular, that we've seen the number of students studying physics, chemistry and biology rise by more than 80 percent.
And at the same time as making sure that we have exams and a curriculum that reward rigor and stress the importance of subject knowledge, it's also the case that we're doing everything possible to enhance the status and prestige of the teaching profession. Let me say it again, we have the best generation of young teachers entering the classroom now, we should be proud of what they're doing. But we should never stop asking ourselves what more we can do to support them. And that's why I'm so glad that teach first, a scheme that takes the best graduates from the top universities in to a classroom, is expanding under this government. It's why I'm so glad that we're moving teacher training out of the ivory towers of so many universities and back in to the classroom where practical teaching skills can be passed on from the best in their field. And it's also why I'm so glad that money has been made available so that we can give bursaries of up to £20,000 pounds to those graduates in mathematics and science who are going to give the next generation the skills that they need to succeed in the 21st century.
New schools and new attitude.
We're fortunate in this country that we have so many good schools. We're fortunate that we have so many great teachers. And we're fortunate that there are so many young people who are ambitious for the future and are doing well.
But I'm not going to rest until every school in this country is as good as the best. I'm not going to quit this job until I ensure that every new teacher is as well trained as the best. And I'm not going to leave until I make sure that every child from a poor home has the same opportunities that are currently enjoyed by the most fortunate in our society.
I'm a parent. I know that I would never accept second best for my child. I know you wouldn't either. And that's why I will never accept second best for this country
Thank you all very much. Thank you.


At lunch today will an old friend and colleague, we stumbled upon the memory of a game that we used to play at the school where we were both teachers in the 90s.
Teachermon was a straight forward rip off of one aspect of the incredibly popular (at the time at least) game Pokemon – in which cards containing information about little creatures are used to play a battle. Sort of Top Trumps on speed. It exploded out of Japan in 1996 and suddenly the kids of the world went Pokemon crazy.
So when a boy in Year 10 approached me and asked if it would be ok to create a version of the cards based on the teachers at the school, I thought it simply genius.
This is how it worked:
For each member of staff, a card was created on which was a photograph (usually a very bad photograph), their name, subject and a set of scores against five powers. This was the tricky part, and the funniest part, of creating the game: what would the powers be? The lads in Year 10 wanted to score teachers against things like "interestingness" and "coolness", but we decided that this was too subjective and likely to cheese some teachers off. They ventured "bad breath", "body odour" and the like, but only jokingly and immediately knew that this was not the spirit of the game. Eventually we arrived at powers such as "Years at Our School" – this meant that long servers scored well, and on the whole we liked this idea because some of the long servers were not keen on the idea of the game.
The kids handcrafted a Teachermon logo, and got to work creating the cards.
Once printed, each teacher was given a stack of their own cards and the students started a craze of playing Teachermon at break time. This meant that they had to collect the cards. You could only collect a card if the teacher chose to give it to you. So for example, I gave each member of my tutor set my card.
The craze took off immediately and with great excitement from the students. Kids would run up to you at break time and plead with you for a copy of your card (we carried a stash around in our pockets) and you would regularly hear phrases like "swap you McCourt for Baker."
In no time at all it became obvious that what we had accidentally stumbled upon here was an amazingly effective reward system. Teachers were handing out cards like merits in lessons. Students were knuckling down to work, being helpful beyond the norm and actually doing homework for the chance of getting your card. There was one chap, who'll we will just call Mr Smith, who had worked at the school for 42 years. To be frank, he was struggling with classroom discipline. Suddenly he was a star. He got in to the spirit of the game straightaway and milked it with tongue in cheek – it was notoriously difficult to get his card. If a student managed to coax one out of him there was an immediate buzz around the school. I once heard that someone swapped 20 "normal" teachers for "a Smith". Discipline issues were completely a thing of the past for Mr Smith. He used the renewed energy that good behaviour gave him, the sense of engagement that Teachermon brought and the interactions with students beyond the lesson to rebuild his relationships with them. Even when the game died out two years later, in the year that he would retire, his connection with the students was so strong that he had automatic respect whenever he spoke.
It was great to talk about that year again with my friend this afternoon. We both scratched our heads at what the next Pokemon craze might be and how we might hook in to it. Any ideas?

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

The Ingredients of a Great Lesson?

What are the necessary ingredients of a great lesson?

This morning, a Twitter post from @tesconnect, asked "Taught a great lesson lately? Upload it to TES resources..."
The inference being that a "great" lesson is something that can be committed to paper in some way.
I think that this is not true. And furthermore, I think that the notion that it is true is contributing to a de-professionalisation of the teaching profession as well as giving a false sense of security to bad teachers.
In 2008, I inspected a lesson in Manchester. The lesson was delivered to Year 10. And it was dire. Truly dire. At one point, sat beside a boy at the back of the room, I wrote down "uncritical use of resources".
The resources that the teacher was using for the maths lesson were lifted from the National Centre of Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (@NCETM) website. The teacher dryly waded through the tasks as though delivering the lines in a bad TV soap opera.
At the end of the lesson, I sat with the teacher and discussed my judgment ("inadequate" in Ofsted terms). She was most perturbed by this and told me sternly that the lesson was good or even outstanding. I asked her to justify this and she told me that she had taught an NCETM lesson and therefore the lesson must have been good.

What is a lesson?

I guess if you think back to school, or watch TV, or think about stereotypes, a lesson is when 30 children sit in a room, at desks, on chairs, in a school. A teacher imparts some information, which the children take notes of, then the children undertake some task from a book, writing their responses in another book, which they carry to and from school.
But that is not a lesson.
Reducing a lesson to its most basic form, we can do away with the books and the classroom and the resources, and the pens, and the paper, the desks and the chairs. At its most basic, a lesson is when one person learns something from another person. (Of course, learning can be reduced further to remove the teacher too).
A great lesson is when a heck of a lot of learning occurs. All that this requires is the teacher to be able to impart the knowledge or skill in such a way that the student is able to systhensise, understand, interpret and embed the knowledge or skill in their own reality.
To achieve this, the teacher must have the skill (the art) to understand both the student and the knowledge or skill. They must be able to empathise with the student's point of view. The teacher then uses this knowledge to select a method of communicating the new knowledge or skill. This could be through story-telling, or modeling, through discussion and debate, through exploration of examples. It is the teacher's art to critically select the method or methods most likely to achieve learning.
The trouble with the resources debate is that, and not enough people say this, there is no such thing as a great resource. There may be resources more likely to achieve the desired effect. But in the hands of a bad teacher, a so-called great resource isn't worth the paper (or interactive whiteboard!) its written on. Conversely, with a so-called terrible resource or indeed no resource at all, the great teacher can conjure up an amazing learning experience.
Sure, having bright airy rooms, modern equipment, numerous resources and the like can all help. But only in the hands of those that know what to do with them.
When the situation exists that some teachers believe that using a resource that has worked well for someone else, without having to think about how that resource relates to their students, then there is something terribly wrong.
Would it not be more helpful then, instead of a focus on resources, for the discussion to be around how to critically review and select appropriate tools from the arsenal of resources at hand? How to develop your own personal pedagogy? How to continue to learn as a professional? How to adapt and reflect?
The TES is a fantastic website and its resource bank, grown by teachers for teachers, is a fantastic tool. But if the TES wants to take a further step in truly improving the lessons that children experience in our schools, it could, without great difficulty, add to the resources section encouragement for professional learning by asking teachers to pause for a moment and think critically about the resources that they find and debate the pedagogy around embedding them in lessons.
Oh, and the answer to the question: The necessary ingredients of a great lesson? A great teacher.