Posts Tagged ‘math’

Maths Teachers Who Can’t Pass Maths

February 19, 2012

Sometimes I wonder how well Primary school maths teachers would go if they were forced to sit a basic skills maths examination. I fear many of them would stumble, especially in skills such as fractions.

How much worse it would be to have specialist maths teachers in the high school system with gaps in their maths knowledge. This may or may not be a reason for the inability for some teachers in getting the desired results from their students:

New Westminster parents are pressing their school district to investigate what they say is an exception-ally high failure rate over many years for high-school students enrolled in math classes taught by a particular teacher.

But they say the district has brushed aside their finding that three out of four students in those New Westminster secondary school math classes failed last semester. And recently, in response to their freedom-of-information request for math marks for all Grade 8-12 students in the school, the district told them they would be charged $1,385 to cover the cost of research and photocopying.

One of the parents, Lisa Chao, said she was shocked by the bill and highly doubts that much work is required to produce the information parents believe would back their contention that the teacher has been unsuccessful in teaching the lessons for many years. “This is information … they should have been gathering at the end of every semester,” she said in an interview. “It shouldn’t take more than three hours to print off.”

Parents deserve the right to information when they suspect that a teacher is letting down their children. Schools shouldn’t shy away from being open and transparent, because when they use tactics like the one referred to above, they look like a party to a major cover-up. I have no problems with schools supporting their teachers, but sometimes even the school needs to take an impartial view.
This teacher should be given every opportunity to defend the allegations. However, the doubts about his/her effectiveness seem valid and require a response.

Maths is Taught So Poorly

February 13, 2012

I realise that what I am writing is a gross generalisation, but I believe that maths is generally taught in a very abstract and monotonous way. No wonder the students are not benefitting from maths instruction at the primary level. Traditional maths teaching involves worksheets, a mindless array of algorithms and plenty of other rote styled goodies.

The tragedy of it all is that maths can be taught in a completely different way. I find the basic skills of maths the most refreshing and creatively exciting subject to teach. The fact that maths is a composite of everyday skills means it translates wonderfully to problem solving activities.

The other day, whilst teaching ordering numbers up to 4 digits, I got my 8-year-old students into groups, each given a particular airline to reasearch. The groups had to find the 3 lowest airfares for a return domestic trip between certain dates and times, These prices were then compared and ordered from least expensive to most expensive. Isn’t that the whole point of ordering and comparing numbers?

Whilst engaging in the exercise, the students enjoyed working in groups, competing for a bargain against other groups, learning how to book airline tickets and simply use their imagination by pretending they were actually intending in going on the flight.

Isn’t that more interesting than a worksheet that has numbers on it to order?

This is why I am not at all surprised that British students leave Primary school ‘with the maths ability of 7-year-old’:

An analysis of last year’s SATs results has shown 27,500 11-year-olds are going on to secondary school with the numeracy skills of children four years their junior.

The figures equate to a staggering one in 20 of the total of those leaving primary school. Boys perform worse than girls, with 15,600 behind in their ability.

Separate statistics published two weeks ago also revealed that one in three GCSE pupils fail to get at least a grade C in maths.

The disclosure follows the launch of a Daily Telegraph campaign – Make Britain Count – to highlight the scale of the nation’s mathematical crisis and provide parents with tools to boost their children’s numeracy skills.

It comes amid concerns that schoolchildren are less likely to study maths to a high standard in England, Wales and Northern Ireland than in most other developed nations.

I appeal to Primary teachers to give the text-book a rest and don’t be afraid to try new and exciting ideas to engage your maths students.

Teachers Administered “Slave” Maths Problems

January 11, 2012

When I first heard about the story of a teacher who wrote maths problems such as, “If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in 1 week?”, I was as angry as many of the people calling for the teacher’s sacking.

After further contemplation, I am no longer as irate.

This teacher made an awful mistake (and one that will brand him/her, rightly or wrongly, as a racist). It was a very poor choice of maths problem and I am sure that the teacher involved feels very ashamed about their role in this incident. I have to say, that I don’t think this teacher was being racist. But I wont go too far in my defence, as some acts of stupidity defy any plausible defence.

A Georgia school insisted today there was no “maliciousness” intended when a third grade math quiz asked students to compute the number of beatings a slave got a week and to calculate how many baskets of cotton he picked.

But the Gwinnett County School District has launched an investigation to determine how the offending questions made it onto the students’ homework sheets.

The math homework assignment was given to more than 100 students at Beaver Ridge Elementary school in Norcross, Ga., as part of a social studies lesson, Gwinnett County school officials said. The assignment outraged parents, community activists and members of the Georgia NAACP.

Sloan Roach, a Gwinnett County school district spokeswoman, told that the students were studying famous Americans and as an attempt to create a cross-curricular worksheet, one teacher used Frederick Douglass and slavery beatings for two of the questions.

Although only one teacher wrote out the controversial questions, another teacher made copies of the assignment and it was distributed to four out of nine third grade classes at Beaver Ridge, Roach said. The school is not publicly naming any of the teachers who are suspected to be involved.

In lashing out against the school and its teachers, I think people are missing a small but still important side story. There is a growing obsession in educational circles to integrate the curriculum. Teachers are called on to integrate all subjects under an unbrella topic. For example, as this year in an Olympic Year, many teachers will plan their maths, language, science, art and music classes around the Olympic theme. This can work well, as the topic lends itself quite easily to the subjects listed above.

But then you have a subject like American History and Slavery. You are the maths teacher, and you have to find a way to cover the curriculum whilst at the same time, covering the topic of slavery. This is neither an easy task nor a fair one. I am glad that I haven’t been asked to combine the two, as I would find it all too hard.

It is time we realised that not every topic can be integrated across the curriculum. Sometimes you have to let the maths teacher teach maths, without imposing on them a topic that doesn’t fit well with skills such as chance and data and order of operations.

Was this teacher in the wrong? Absolutely! Was he/she a racist. Probably not. Should the teachers found administering this worksheet be fired? I don’t think so. Should a maths teacher ever be expected to combine maths problems with a slavery topic?

I would have thought the answer to that question was obvious.

Teacher Writes “Stupid” on Student’s Forehead

December 16, 2011

There is no doubt that teachers have a responsibility to maintain their calm and not give in to difficult and challenging students. Whilst this is harder than it sounds, teachers cannot afford to vent at their students.

When people ask me what are some of the most important skills required to be a good teacher, I always mention patience. To me, patience is an essential skill for every teacher. But patience doesn’t come straight away. It often requires years of practise and hard work.

That is why I think it is important to note that the teacher that wrote the word “stupid” on the child’s forehead was in his first year. Yes, he wrong to do what he did. Yes, he deserves to be sacked. But I hope he is not lost to teaching permanently just because of what he did.

A Tennessee teacher’s first year on the job could be his last. He could lose his job for something he did in the classroom.

It’s a simple school supply, but when a teacher, Alex Boles, used a permanent marker to write the word “stupid” on a student’s forehead, the director of Overton County Schools took immediate action.

“One word can break a child I mean I’ve got three children and I wouldn’t want it done to mine,” said Matt Eldridge, Director of Schools.

It happened last week at Allons Elementary. The K-8 school only has a few hundred students just outside Livingston, Tennessee.

One student had a question, and Boles responded and wrote the word on the student’s forehead in front of his classmates.

“The teacher said I was trying to joke with him and of course I’ve tried to talk to him and told him that’s not the way you joke with anyone,” said Eldridge.

Until last week, Boles taught math at Allons Elementary. He was new to the job, he just started this fall, and what many consider his lapse in judgment could cost him in the long haul.

“It’s kind of one of those mistakes that’s hard to correct,” said Eldridge.

The district will allow the teacher due process, but the director said he will insist that Boles lose his job. A big price to pay for a single significant mistake.

I still hold out hope that Mr. Boles has potential to be a very good teacher. It would be great if he was given the support to learn from his mistakes and is given a second chance in another school.  I also hope he apologises profusely to the child involved, as well as the child’s parents.

Schools Should Not Block YouTube

November 30, 2011

YouTube, in my opinion, is the hidden gem of education. It’s hidden, not because people don’t know it exists or what it can do.  On the contrary, everyone and their dog is aware of the diverse clips that YouTube contains.  It’s hidden because many schools, including until recently my own, have chosen to block it. The reason for this is fairly understandable – YouTube contains clips which are clearly unsuitable for children.

Whilst this is true, there is too much to be gained by exposing children to the wealth of educational opportunities that exist on YouTube to justify blocking it.

The other day I wanted to buy a phone.  I had a few in mind, but didn’t posses the technological nous to help me find something that would best give me value for money and fulfill my practical needs. So I did what many do when they can’t make their mind up about something – I asked YouTube.  On YouTube I watched clips on the various phones, was given a run through of their features, advantages, design and reliability issues etc.

This helped me settle on a phone.  But my education didn’t stop there.  As I am a visual learner, I require more than just a booklet to follow.  To set up my phone and navigate my way through the different functions I turned to my dear friend, YouTube, who again, didn’t let me down.

YouTube is the modern-day instructive tool. It clearly and carefully teaches people practical skills in language they can understand. It plays the part of teacher.

At the moment I am teaching my 5th Graders about finding the lowest common denominator before adding and subtracting fractions. As a test, before writing this blog post, I typed some key words into a YouTube search and came up with many fine online tutorials on this very skill that kids can readily access.  It shouldn’t replace the teacher, but it can certainly help a child pick up a concept.

And it’s not just academic skills that can be developed through YouTube.  If my school hadn’t relaxed its position on YouTube, I wouldn’t have had the chance to show my students the best anti-bullying film going around. I have come across so many lame and unconvincing films about bullying in my time. So to first find Mike Feurstein’s masterful film, and then get the chance to show the movie to my appreciative class, was a major coup for my ongoing efforts in trying to keep my classroom bully free.  The film, posted below is as good a reason as any to allow teachers to use YouTube in the classroom.

Sure teachers have to be on the lookout for students who may exploit this privilege, but ultimately that is our job. If we banned everything that has possible risks or negative outcomes, we wouldn’t have much to work with at all.



The Humiliation of Standing Up in Front of the Class

October 19, 2011

Critics of the way our generation of parents rear children tell us that we spoil kids senseless.  They say that we go out of our way to protect our children from failure.  They admonish us for not allowing children to deal with disappointment, a crucial life skill in the real world.

But as much as I agree with these critics, I can’t help but sympathise for children that are not ready for the battering that can come about from being singled out amongst their peers.

When I was studying to become a teacher, my Art lecturer made us do a sketch of a fellow classmate, who was made to pose leaning against a ladder.  I can’t draw for my life.  Even my stick figures look shabby!  At the end of the activity, the students wandered from drawing to drawing, inspecting the works of art that our creative class had accomplished.  Then there was mine.  An absolutely horrendous, ghastly mess, that looked nothing like the poor subject.  I wanted to crawl into the art supplies cupboard and remain there for at least thirty years!

When we were expecting our first child, we attended parenting classes.  On one of our weekly lessons, the instructor got all the fathers up in front of the class to do a demonstration of how cloth nappies/diapers are applied to a newborn.  We were each given a cloth nappy and a doll and were given quick instructions before being put to work.  I have never been great with verbal instructions.  I am a visual person, relying on generous amounts of time and clear descriptive pictures before I can follow even the simplest of instructions.  Needless to say, my nappy ended up looking more like a paper airplane.

And I’m an adult with relatively good self-esteem.  Imagine how kids feel?

Imagine how uncoordinated and unfit children feel during physical education classes.  Imagine how traumatic it is for a child who finds maths difficult to demonstrate an answer on the board in front of the class.

I totally agree that these are problems children should be able to deal with, as they are problems that exist in the real world.

I’m just not sure I’m emotionally ready to teach it to them.

The Case in Favour of Homework

September 24, 2011

I used to be philosophically opposed to homework in all forms.  That was, until I witnessed how my students used their after-school time.  It was then, that I realised that ten to fifteen minutes a night would constitute the only meaningful activity some of these students would take part in on a given night.

I am still hardly a proponent of homework, but I do share some of the opinions of author and teacher, Katharine Birbalsingh:

The radio presenter Alan Jones doesn’t believe in homework because children should have time to play outside and learn skills that only time after school with your family can teach. Normally, I would agree. But do children today have these types of experiences after school?

Families are so busy working that when children come home, they often sit in front of the TV for hours or play computer games. Children spend hours every day networking on Facebook. Exhausted parents do not realise just how dangerous these modern technological tools can be.

Technology can open a world of excitement to children. Yet it can also glorify gangster lifestyles through MTV, and encourage the use of bad language and ”text speak” in social networking.

An hour of homework a night distracts children from such activities and enables them to practise what they were taught at school. Excellent learning requires constant revisiting, and homework is the perfect tool to reinforce facts and skills. Teachers often find that children forget what they learnt the day before. At high school, you may not see your history or geography teacher for a few days until the next lesson. Without any homework in between to bridge the gap, often teachers take two steps forward, then one step back in the following lesson.

It is the school’s responsibility to inform parents that homework has been set – easily done through a diary system. The school should also ensure the homework set is of quality and not some assignment that can essentially be downloaded from the internet. Equally, it is the parents’ responsibility to ensure homework gets done.

I object to her call for an hour of homework per day, but I do currently favour 10-15 minutes of revision work, to consolidate on skills and concepts currently being covered in class.
Anthony Purcell from the brilliant blog Educationally Minded employs a similar strategy for homework inspired by his will to see his students gain some confidence from working independently:
Well, I have taught math in the past. My thoughts on homework was that if students had homework, they didn’t get finished in class. I never assigned homework. Homework was there if they didn’t get finished in class, but most times students did.

Now that I teach Science, it’s the same way. A lot of what we do is in class, hands-on activities. Homework are the questions they didn’t get to because they were goofing off or not focused in class.

In my opinion, teachers who teach the entire period and allow no work time are not good teachers. Students need to know they are being successful and have confidence. They can’t have a teacher telling them they are correct when they are at home.

This topic remains a very contentious one.  I look forward to reading your opinions on this much discussed issue.

Fixing Math Education

August 25, 2011

I just read a brilliant article in the New York Times about a suggested overhaul to teaching math.  It argues that much of what is on the standard curriculum will never apply to the average adult.

THERE is widespread alarm in the United States about the state of our math education. The anxiety can be traced to the poor performance of American students on various international tests, and it is now embodied in George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law, which requires public school students to pass standardized math tests by the year 2014 and punishes their schools or their teachers if they do not.

All this worry, however, is based on the assumption that there is a single established body of mathematical skills that everyone needs to know to be prepared for 21st-century careers. This assumption is wrong. The truth is that different sets of math skills are useful for different careers, and our math education should be changed to reflect this fact.

Today, American high schools offer a sequence of algebra, geometry, more algebra, pre-calculus and calculus (or a “reform” version in which these topics are interwoven). This has been codified by the Common Core State Standards, recently adopted by more than 40 states. This highly abstract curriculum is simply not the best way to prepare a vast majority of high school students for life.

For instance, how often do most adults encounter a situation in which they need to solve a quadratic equation? Do they need to know what constitutes a “group of transformations” or a “complex number”? Of course professional mathematicians, physicists and engineers need to know all this, but most citizens would be better served by studying how mortgages are priced, how computers are programmed and how the statistical results of a medical trial are to be understood.

Whilst this is not news to us, the suggestions given for overcoming this problem are very simple yet quite brilliant all the same.

A math curriculum that focused on real-life problems would still expose students to the abstract tools of mathematics, especially the manipulation of unknown quantities. But there is a world of difference between teaching “pure” math, with no context, and teaching relevant problems that will lead students to appreciate how a mathematical formula models and clarifies real-world situations. The former is how algebra courses currently proceed — introducing the mysterious variable x, which many students struggle to understand. By contrast, a contextual approach, in the style of all working scientists, would introduce formulas using abbreviations for simple quantities — for instance, Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2, where E stands for energy, m for mass and c for the speed of light.

There’s not many common sense ideas in education at the moment.  It’s good to stumble upon one that is clearly steeped in common sense.

Maths Lessons Should be “Toughened Up”: Gove

June 30, 2011

Michael Gove might think that rigorous daily and weekly testing in maths is the answer, but my experience tells me that testing doesn’t work for all types of students.  There are some students that lift their game when tested.  Their competitive juices get going, and their drive to get a good grade is palpable.  Then there are students who need to learn in a less pressurised and more r
elaxed setting.  They freeze during formal testing, but progress extremely well when the focus is on the skill or concept rather than the grade.

Michael Gove disagrees:

All primary school children should be given daily maths lessons and weekly tests to stop pupils falling behind those from the Far East, Michael Gove suggested today. 

Mr Gove said schools should also “bear in mind” a system used in Shanghai where pupils have daily maths lessons and regular tests to “make sure that all children are learning the basics”.

What disappoints me as a Primary Maths teacher, is that in the quest for better results the focus becomes testing instead of engagement.  I believe that Maths can be taught in a turgid and lifeless way.  Conversely, it can be taught in an interesting, engaging and creative way.  Whilst constant testing will make students resent the subject, there are ways of teaching maths which can engage and excite students.

The answer to improving our students’ maths skills should not result in them hating the subject.

Making Maths Fun is Not Mission Impossible

February 2, 2011

I’m no teaching guru – just an ordinary teacher that loves his job. I am a primary level generalist teacher, which means I teach all major subjects such as Maths, English, Social Studies and Science. As much as I love teaching all subjects, I find Maths most exciting.

Is it because I have a background in Maths? Absolutely not. I have an Arts degree.

Is it because I am good at Maths? On the contrary. As a student I would frustrate my teachers no end. As a kid, I had as much chance of passing a maths test as Homer Simpson has of suffering from dandruff!

The reason I love teaching maths is that I find it an untapped and underrated subject for injecting creativity and role-play. Last week I wrote about how primary teachers often struggle to teach maths, as they mostly come from a humanities background.

Commenting on that post, loyal reader and frequent contributor Margaret Reyes Dempsey, wrote, “I’d love to read a post about some of the ways you approach math in the classroom.”

Every week I will endeavour to describe an innovative Maths lesson I have concocted.


Lesson 1: Mission Impossible Maths (Place Value)

I get the students to bring a pair of sunglasses to school for homework. The students invariably ask me what the glasses are for. I tell them it’s a surprise. They automatically think science, perhaps an activity out in the sun. The truth is, the sunglasses are nearly irrelevant, only there to raise curiosity and engagement.

On the day of the lesson I take the kids to our small but homely hall. I carry a briefcase and have on my own pair of “spy” glasses. The kids have no idea what is in the briefcase, and have no clue what is happening. I sit them down on the floor and tell them that there is a problem. There is a mansion close by. In that mansion there is a suitcase. In the suitcase there is a key. The key, in the hands of evil would change the world as we know it. It would give them the power to ban all music except for the golden oldies and make sure that nothing but news is on TV. The kids groan at the prospect. Lucky you are here, I tell them. You are the best spies in the world, and your mission is to break in to the mansion and get the key before they do. I call their names out, adding their secret spy name e.g. Sammy “The Drummer” Smith. The spy name is just another opportunity for me to connect with the interests and skills of my students. I split them into groups based on ability, as the lesson will involve maths problems ranging from basic to more complex.
I take them outside and show what they have to do to break into the mansion. I show them the slide which I call “The Tunnel of Terror.” Getting through the tunnel will be tricky, as a wrong turn would send out the crocodiles. To get through the tunnel without being eaten, group 1 has to work together to order a sheet of 5 digit numbers from lowest to highest number.

I then take the class to the school door, or “Dynamite Door”. To gain access to the mansion, Group 2 has to order a sheet of 5-digit numbers, this time from highest to lowest, otherwise the door will explode.

I show the class the door that leads to the hall, or as I call it “The DNA door.” To gain access to the room in which the suitcase is kept, Group 3 has to bypass the special DNA sensitive handle. To do that, they are given 6-digit numbers to order.

Group 4 has to get past the infra red sensors to get to the suitcase. This involves making as many 4-digit numbers from, for example, 4, 3, 1, 8. Once they have gotten past all 4 obstacles they will face one more test (to be revealed at the time) before being able to open the briefcase. They are told they have 45 minutes and the time starts now …
I distribute the sheets to each group, watching them feverishly try to solve the problems without making a mistake. Each group appoints a checker, to check for a careless error that would complicate this dangerous mission. If a group finishes early, they are quiet, because they rely on the proficiency of the other groups. When all groups are done we go back to the slide. The clock is still running.

The first member of group 1 reads the first part of the answer and when I confirm that it’s right goes down the slide. The other members do the same until they have all slid down the slide. Members of group 2 read out their answers. On getting the right answer each member is allowed access through the door until they are all inside the building. The same for Group 3 with their door and Group 4 with the sensors.

The final challenge involves a representative from each group stepping forward to help break the suitcase code. I tell the 4 representatives that the code number is between 3,500 and 3,600, and they have to guess it right. All I can tell them is whether their guess is higher, lower or spot on.

Once the final code has been broken, the person that correctly broke it gets to open the case and take out the key. They usually get the key with only a few minutes left to spare. You should see the cheers and hugs that come about from unearthing the key. It is such a great bonding experience.

I do this lesson in the second week of the school year. At that stage my students almost uniformly claim they hate maths with a passion. It is only after the lesson that I spill the beans that they had just taken part in a maths activity. In reality, it was nothing more than a set of dry worksheets with a bit of imagination and wackiness added on.

If you feel that this lesson would be suitable for your kids, I’d love to know how it goes.

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