Wednesday, September 27, 2006

An apology

I'm reliably informed that my last posting was "a bit of a rant". A good rant, maybe, but a rant all the same.

Sorry.

I didn't mean to, honest. I was trying to offer a cogent, concise, thoughtful op-ed on the problems of demonising - however inadvertently - the very people who make a good school what it is. But I did get rather carried away.

I'm off to write a few lines by way of a "punny".

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

In praise of the staffroom cynic

There's been a lot said recently about so-called "staffroom cynics", mostly by Peter (where's my baseball bat when I need it) Peacock, the hairy Scottish Education Minister, who's come over all tough and rough - in a pre-election year, jings, who'd have thunked it? - regarding poor teachers. As in, not very good ones. Pistol-packin' Pete is clear on the matter: it's the end of the line for these varmints, dagnabbit!

Well, there's many points I could make here. For one, any "rubbish" teachers will quickly be replaced before you can say "How Good Is My Toilet Roll" by any number of och-aye-you'll-do newly qualified teachers pouring hurriedly out of our esteemed colleges of education. And they'll all be fabby, right?

But what's getting my goat - and not just Pete's natty goatee either - is that he's having a go at staffroom cynicism. You know the sort: teachers who insist on asking questions about new initiatives in education, rather than hurrying off to buy some new highlighters so they can pretend they've read the latest policy document. Hey, Pete, that's all that keeps some poor beggars going, mate!

Don't get me wrong, there are teachers who are, for whatever reason, no longer up to the job, and this is a real problem. But, there's also any number of really good teachers who long to get on with the job free from the political kick-around which passes for educational policy these days. Yes, they are cynical at a great many "new initiatives", and often with good reason. For one thing, they've seen how today's brave new idea gets a kicking from HMIE a few years down the line when fashions change; for another, they've seen careers made on piles of keech and a fancy cv; but most of all, maybe - just maybe - they know a steaming pile of poo for what it is. If it looks like it, and smells like it... and worse, if someone somewhere is making a pile of cash out of running consultancies offering self-help schucksterism and join-the-dots psychobabble, your average staffroom cynic knows that somewhere down the line, they'll be picking up the pieces.

So, for once, let's hear it for the staffroom cynic. You know the one: the one that's first in the door in the morning, gets on well with the kids, drags them through exams, stays after school for hours on end to help them with their work or to take part in after-school activities, BUT who thinks that QIO is a BBC2 comedy quiz show with Stephen Fry and loses the will to live when asked to fill out a self-evaluation form. How dare they.

And you know what, Captain Peacock? They weren't born this way. There was a time when they weren't cynics. So, what made them this way?

Monday, September 18, 2006

Proofs out there

Well, if I'm going to call this blog "the proof is out there", and then come across this, then I'd better share it.

Made me laugh, at least.

And, for any actual maths teachers out there, how about this fabulous resource for all manner of mathematical goodies?

Value for money, I tell you.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

This business of teaching

It's a funny old game, isn't it? I suppose we teachers must sound like those sportsmen and women we go on about their respective sports: "that's the beauty of snooker/cricket/all in mud wrestling, Clive, you never know what's going to happen next", sort of stuff. And so with the business of teaching. Seldom dull, you have to admit.

Heard a good one today - every now and then a colleague will pass on an anecdote that has survived the telling in countless staffrooms the land o'er - about a pupil working in "techie" in the old days (pre Health and Safety legislation). I hope it's true - and even if it's not, it tells a truth all the same.

The teacher explained how they were going to make a coffee table, the first step being to take a given length of wood and cut it into four equal parts for the legs.

Well, as you can guess, when Sir gets to wee Johnny he finds he has three pieces of wood roughly the same length, and one much shorter. "No, Johnny, they've all to be the same length, remember?" says our intrepid teacher.

To which comes Johnny's reply, thereafter to live on in teacher lore: "Aye, and the plank wisnae long enough for them a' tae be the same length, wis it!"

Told well, this is funny - I hope - but it also sums up a truth about teaching, about teachers and about students which I think every teacher "gets" as soon as they hear it. I'm not sure I can quite put it into words... so, for those that have ears to hear etc, on you go.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Och, but it's a great job

OK, this'll have to be quick... "Hell's Kitchen USA" is on in fifteen minutes. (I do appreciate swearing when it's done with the finesse of Gordon Ramsay... actually, I didn't used to swear much at all, now I come to think of it. Do you reckon this teaching lark has something to do with it? Discuss.)

Anyway, time surely to say why I absolutely love my job. After all, I did start off trying to be in some tiny way inspirational in my bloggings, but looking back I see I'm reaching for the rant button a fair bit. So: teaching. Jings, but it's fabby. Love it. Love it love it love it. And despite all the best efforts of managers, politicians, (parents? surely not) etc etc, the whole you-and-the-class-learning-together thing... och, but it's great.

There you go. Almost rant free; swerved close to ranting in the middle bit, but I think we can all agree I recovered.

It's not for everyone, of course. So good luck to all you student teachers out there, wherever you are, buying your new satchel and wondering how to look grown up (don't worry, even if you're 21 the class will think late twenties minimum - sad but true). I hope this is the beginning of fabby fabness, career-wise. And if it's not, but is a year of hell instead... well, trust me, it's better to find this out sooner rather than later.

And the holidays... hey, somebody's got to have 'em.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Assessment is for Learning

Now, I hope I know what you're thinking, if you've never heard this phrase before. You're thinking "Eh?", or perhaps, "Whit?" - and who can blame you. I mean, is the phrase even grammatical?

Y'see, it's an initiative, so grammatical requirements are sidestepped - because the numptys who write these things would barely know a grammatical statement if it bit them on their bums (or bum's, as they might put it).

Anyways, "AifL" - as we call it in the trade - is an initiative designed to get schools thinking about how best to use assessment to improve learning. I nearly said "enhance" there, rather than improve - jings but this jargon is catching. The idea as I see it, is that assessments - for which too many of us immediately think "tests" - are too often used at the end of a process of learning, when it might be a whole lot better to look at ways to use less formal ways of assessing to see how much kids understand during the learning, and act accordingly.

Now at this point let me be clear that this is, undoubtedly, A Good Thing, as far as it goes. For one thing, the burden of marking in Maths is a bit of a killer, so any way we can reduce this gets my vote (there's only so much red wine I can drink of an evening...). And for another, isn't this what good teachers should be doing anyway?

And there lies the rub. I don't mind someone coming up with an initiative - fair play to them, and I'm sure they get a real kick out of designing little diagrams based round triangles that purport to show the three corners of assessment - but I wish to hell they wouldn't make out that they've come up with the bloody Theory of Relativity. And worse yet, I wish they wouldn't then go on to maintain that this is the blueprint for all lessons forevermore.

Y'see, it's now apparently expected by the Inspectorate (HMIE as they are to their friends) that all lessons will begin with teachers - get ready for this - "sharing learning intentions criteria".

Oh for goodness' sake! I mean, is it just me, or should whoever first committed that phrase to paper not be forced to endure a thousand paper cuts as punishment?

People: education is not a business. We're not producing widgets. We're dealing with kids who deserve to be challenged, motivated, heck, even inspired... and if you honestly think that having every lesson in the entire sodding land begin with the teacher outlining these "criteria" is going to transform education for the better - well, all I can say is, you must be a crap teacher.

Now of course there's a place for making it clear to the weans what we're up to in a lesson. And of course, all too often, our lessons start with a bit of maths dumped on them from a great height with no explanation or context to help kids get the picture. But, but, but... is this one-size fits all "sharing learning intentions criteria" really the answer? And to take but one example: if I'm going to introduce calculus to a class that's never met it before and have no understanding of the term, how in heaven's name am I meant to get across these sodding criteria? I'm like quite a few teachers in that I introduce calculus by lookng at graphs and talking about gradients and the like, before then using graphing software to begin a quest to find a rule for the "gradient function" - so the last thing I want to do is give the game away by saying what the rule is. Whereas, presumably, someone who comes straight out with the rule at the start of the lesson and witters on about learning intentions is somehow delivering a better lesson? Aye, that'll be chocolate!

On a good day, I'm ready to believe that our lords and masters don't see things so simply, and that it's just the (poor) interpretation of their suggestions that makes it down to us mere mortals. Well, here's hoping...

Monday, September 04, 2006

Sunday, September 03, 2006

The Evolution of a Maths Problem

OK, this is lazy, but if I don't blog then I don't exist, so here's an old gag which might raise a smile:

The Evolution of a Maths Problem

1950:A lumberjack sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is 4/5 of this price. What is his profit?

1960 (traditional maths):A lumberjack sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is 4/5 of this price, or in other words $80. What is his profit?

1970 (new maths):A lumberjack exchanges a set L of lumber for a set M of money. The cardinality of set M is 100, and each element is worth $1. Make 100 dots representing the elements of set M. The set C is a subset of set M, of cardinality 80. What is the cardinality of the set P of profits, if P is the difference set M\C?

1980 (equal opportunity maths):A lumberjack sells a truckload of wood for $100. His or her cost of production is $80, and his or her profit is $20. Your assignment: Underline the number 20.

1990 (outcome based education):By cutting down beautiful forest trees, a lumberperson makes $20. What do you think of his way of making a living? In your group, discuss how the forest birds and squirrels feel, and write an essay about it.

1995 (entrepreneurial maths):By laying off 402 of its lumberjacks, a company improves its stock price from $80 to $100. How much capital gain per share does the CEO make by exercising his stock options at $80? Assume capital gains are no longer taxed, because this encourages investment.

1998 (motivational math):A logging company exports its wood-finishing jobs to its Indonesian subsidiary and lays off the corresponding half of its US workers (the higher-paid half). It clear-cuts 95% of the forest, leaving the rest for the spotted owl, and lays off all its remaining US workers. It tells the workers that the spotted owl is responsible for the absence of fellable trees and lobbies Congress for exemption from the Endangered Species Act. Congress instead exempts the company from all federal regulation. What is the return on investment of the lobbying?