Archive for the ‘Teaching’ Category

Angles or Angels?

January 26, 2017 3 comments

When I marked my year 11 books the other day I noticed that quite a few had been working that morning on “Angels in triangles’. This peturbed me a little, surely by Year 11 they should know the difference and be able to spell each one.

To counteract this massive literacy issue I played a game of “Angles and Angels”. I spoke to them first about the difference, then about the spelling and then did a show me activity where I showed them various pictures and they had to show me on their whiteboards if it was an angle or an “Angel”. I was impressed that they even got the picture of Kurt Angle,  although none of them recognised David Boreanas…..

The activity led to a discussing with a couple of them as to why it was important to discuss these things in maths lessons. Stemming from the inevitable question “why we learning about this? It’s maths not English.”

I explained my opinion that we may be learning maths, but that literacy is important in all subjects. As a maths teacher I educate these students and literacy has to be a big party of that, as I hope numeracy is a big party of those subjects that deal with numbers but aren’t maths. I also expressed the importance of maths specific vocabulary, such as ‘angles’ and how it’s not necessarily going to be covered in English.

It is these sorts of things that we need to be thinking about, literacy wise, to ensure our students are in the best position when they leave.


September 7, 2016 Leave a comment

This post was originally published on Labour Teachers here on 9th September 2016.

Uniforms are part and parcel of school life for the vast majority of us. They are often quite arbitrary and they differ from school to school. They are something that, for some reason, never stop being discussed.

They can be expensive,  I’ve recently seen these costs as a parent for the first time and I understand them. But they aren’t a great deal more than other clothes. 

So why is it they have hit the news again? 

Well that’s because a school crackdown has caused outrage, as usual. What I imagine has happened is that the school has either brought in a new uniform requirement or, the more likely scenario, the school has decided to ensure that students follow the uniform policy.

It seems like basic common sense to me. If a school has a uniform policy, it should be enforced. If you attend a school with a uniform policy you should follow that policy. If your child attends a school with a uniform policy you should ensure they are following said policy.

It’s strange, I’ve worked in many jobs which have had many different dress codes. Some simple uniforms (a pub branded t shirt) some full uniforms (a branded suit and tie), some strict dress codes (suit and tie) and some more lax (shirt and tie). I’ve never thought to try and get round it.

I have, however, heard every excuse under the sun from students. 

Following uniform policies is important. It’s the opening gambit. If you have a uniform policy and don’t enforce it you are saying to the world “our policies mean nothing” and inviting students to break the behaviour policy, the attendance policy etc etc etc. 

Categories: Teaching Tags:

A lovely old problem

July 11, 2016 Leave a comment

Recently Ed Southall shared this problem from 1976:

I’m not entirely sure if it is from an A level or and O level paper. It covers topics that currently sit on the A level, but I think calculus was on the O level at some point. Edit: it’s O level I saw the question and couldn’t help but have a try at it.

First, I drew the diagram – of course:

I have the coordinates of P, and hence N so I needed to work out the coordinates of Q.  To do this I differentiated to get the gradient of a tangent and followed to get the gradient of a tangent at P.

Next I found the equation, and hence the X intercept.

And then, because I’m am idiot, I decided to work out the Y coordinate I already knew and had used!

The word in brackets is duh…..

Now I had all three point.

It was a simple division to find the tangent ratio of the angle.

The next 2 parts were trivial:

And then I misread the question and assumed I’d been asked to find the shaded region (actually part d). 

Because I decided calculators were probably not widely available in 1976 I did it without one:

I thought it was quite a lot of complicated simplifying, but then I saw part c and the nice answer it gives:

Which makes the simplifying in part d simpler:

I thought this was a lovely question and I found it enjoyable to do. It tests a number of skills together and although it is scaffolded it still requires a little bit of thinking. I hope to see some nice big questions like this on the new specification.

Edit: The front cover of the paper:

Radical Exponents

July 6, 2016 1 comment

Recently I saw this from on Facebook and it struck me as an interesting problem:

the first solution is trivial and obvious:

But the Facebook post said there was two, so I set out in search of the next one. As there were exponents I thought I’d take logs of both sides:

Then realised I could take logs to base X and make things a whole lot simpler….

So x = 9/4

As you can see it reduces to an easily solvable problem, and all that was left was to check the answer:

A lovely little problem that gives a good work out to algebra and log skills.

Consultation time again

June 13, 2016 Leave a comment

Is it cynical of me to question the DoE’s repeated tactic of releasing consultations either just before the summer, when most teachers are in the midst of high stakes exam testing, or over the summer when a lot of teachers are either away or spending time catching up with their families who they haven’t seen through the heavy term time?

Anyway, this year they have released another one. It focusses around the new GCSEs, and more specifically the awarding of grades. The consultation states that for the first award there will be a heavier reliance on statistical methods to set the grade boundaries, allowing the same proportion of grade 4s as we currently have of grade Cs, likewise similar proportions of 1s to Gs and of 7s to As. The rest will be split arithmetically ie the boundaries in between will be equally spread. From Year 2 onwards it will revert back to examiner judgement, but use the statistical analysis as a guide as well as the national reference tests.

This immediately raises questions – how do we know that the first year to sit it should have a similar proportion of 4s as Cs? It seems that this has been decided without much thought about the prior attainment; the consultation certainly doesn’t mention it for the first year. It does going forward, but that doesn’t really explain how this prior attainment will be measured. I have been under the impression that the KS2 SATs are moving from level based assessments to assessments where the students’ scores will be reported as percentiles – surely then comparisons of prior assessment will always be the same? “This year, bizarrely, we saw exactly 10% score above the 90th percentile, what’s more bizarre is that is exactly the same proportion as last year!”

It seems strange to me to put such a heavy reliance on these prior attainment targets anyhow. We live (for now) in a society that has a fairly fluid immigration system, so the students who get to year 11 haven’t always been through year 6 in this country. There is also a question of the validity of the assumption that every year group will progress over the 5 years of secondary at the same rate.

The obvious elephant in the room is floor targets. By setting the boundaries so the same proportion of students get above a grade 4 as get above a C, but switching the threshold to a grade 5 you immediately drop the results of a whole host of schools down, what happens then remains to be seen, but I can imagine lot of departments will become under pressure and scrutiny for something that is statistically inevitable given the new grading formula.

This is all interesting, but it’s not much different to previous announcements and consultations, what is different is the formula for awarding grades 8 and 9. The formula looks to be a fair way of doing it, but it seems strange to me to use this formula just for the first year. Why then revert to examiner judgement about the grade standard? The government seem to be happy to use statistical analysis and similar grade proportions in parts of their grading system, but not in all of it, and that seems odd to me.

Have you responded yet? If not you can here (but hurry, the consultation closes June 17th). I’d love to hear other people’s views either in the comments or via social media.

Patient problem solving

June 7, 2016 5 comments

I recently read a piece by D Pearcy called “Reflections on Patient Problem Solving”, from Mathematics Teaching 247. It was an interesting article that looks at how teachers need to allow time for students to try their own ideas out while problem solving, rather than just coax them along in a “this is how I would do it” kind of way.

Pearcy’s definition of problem solving is looking at something you have never encountered before that is difficult and frustrating at times, takes a reasonable amount of time, can be solved more than one way and can be altered or extended upon easily. He then goes on to ask whether this is actually happening in classes or if teachers are just walking students through problems, rather than allowing them to problem solve.

He quotes Lockhart (2009) – “A good problem is one you don’t know how to solve” and states that it follows that if you give hints then it defeats the point of setting problems. He goes on to say that maths advocates talk of the importance of maths as a tool to problem solving – but that this isn’t actually happening if students are not being allowed to get frustrated and struggle through to a solution.

He explains how he finds it difficult not to give hints when students are struggling, both because it is in most teachers nature to help, and because of the external pressure to get through the syllabus quickly. This is something I too have encountered and something I have become increasingly aware of as I try to allow time for struggle. Other factors at play are maintaining interest, and increasing confidence. If we let students struggle too much they may lose interest and confidence in their ability – thus it is important to strike a balance between allowing the struggle but not letting it go too far. This is certainly something I keep in mind during lessons, and I feel it is something that we all should be aware of when planning and teaching.

This is an interesting article that looks at a specific problem and allowing students time to struggle and persist. This importance of this is paramount, in my view, and this is also the view expressed by the author of the article. I find it very hard to not offer hints and guidance when students are struggling. One way I manage to combat this at times is by setting problems I haven’t solved yet, thus leaving me a task to complete at the same time. This can work well, particularly at A Level and Further Maths level as then I can take part in the discussion with the students almost as a peer. This is a technique I have used often with my post 16 classes this year.

I have been reading a lot about problem solving recently, and a recurring theme is that teachers can often stifle the problem solving they are hoping to encourage by not allowing it to take place. This is something we need to be aware of, we need to have the patience to allow students the time to try out their ideas and to come up with solutions or fall into misconceptions that can then be addressed.J
Have you read this article? If so, what are your thoughts on it? Have you read anything else on problem solving recently? I’d love you to send be the links if you have and also send me your thoughts. Also, what does problem solving look like in your classroom? Do you find it a struggle not to help? I’d love to hear in the comments or via social media.

Further Reading on this topic from Cavmaths:

Dialogic teaching and problem solving

Understanding students’ ideas


Pearcy.D. (2015). Reflections on patient problem solving. Mathematics Teaching. 247 pp 39-40

Lockhart, P. (2009). A Mathematician’s Lament. Retrieved from:

Understanding students’ ideas

June 7, 2016 Leave a comment

I read a really interesting article today entitled “Teachers’ evolving understanding of their students’ mathematical ideas during and after classroom problem solving” by L.B. Warner and R.Y. Schorr. It is a great report that looks at three teacher’s responses to their students’ solutions to a problem, and it discusses in detail how the teachers reflected on them together. It is well worth a read for all maths teachers.

The teachers were middle school maths teacher and they were presented with a problem to solve by the researchers they then presented their classes with the problem and debriefed afterwards. It was clear that the teachers didn’t have the thorough subject knowledge of a high school maths specialist and this lead to them failing to pick up some misconceptions and not allowing students to explore their own methods if they didn’t understand it, rather moving them on to a method that was more familiar to the teacher. The reflections of the teachers are interesting, they all appear to become frustrated with themselves when analysing their responses and are able to reflect on this by offering alternatives. It does show that deeper subject knowledge is important to allow that exploration to take place. The study showed that in this context when the teachers just told students how to fix their mistakes, rather than question students as to why they had made them, this led to student confusion. This suggests that we should be striving to understand our students thinking whenever possible and using that to combat their misconceptions so they don’t fall into similar traps again. This will also allow students to see why they are coming up with these misconceptions.

There are many teachers who, at times, fail to understand the lines of mathematical thinking taken by their students when solving problems. This can lead to not giving the proper amount of credit to valid ideas and it can lead to teachers failing to spot misconceptions. Some students may have a perfectly valid method but as the teacher may not see where they are going they can sometimes block this route off. This has deep links to “Flowery math: a case for heterodiscoursia in mathematics problems solving in recognition of students’ authorial agency” by K. von Duyke and E Matusov , which I read recently (you can read my reflections here). I feel that it shows that deep subject knowledge is important, as is allowing students time and space to work through the problem on their own. Rather than saying, “No, do it this way” we should, be encouraging students to follow their nose, as it were, and see if they can get anywhere with it. It is always possible to show the students the more concise method when they have arrived at the answer to bui8ld their skill set.

Warner and Schorr believe that subject content, as well as pedagogical content is vitally important to teachers to enable than to know how to proceed when a student is attempting a problem. They look at relevant literature on this and quote Jacobs, Philip and Lamb (2010) who suggest that this is something that can be achieved over time and Schoenfield (2011) who says that teachers tend to be more focussed on students being engaged in mathematics and replicating the solutions of the teacher rather than allowing students to meander their own way through so the teacher scan identify their understanding and misconceptions. The latter would, in my opinion, be a much better way of developing, and I agree with JPL that this is a skill one can develop over time.


Jacobs, V. R., Lamb, L. L. C., and Philipp, R. A. (2010). Professional noticing of children’s mathematical thinking. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 41, pp 169–202.

Schoenfeld, A. H. (2011). Toward Professional Development for Teachers Grounded in a Theory of Teachers’ Decision Making. ZDM, The International Journal of Mathematics Education, 43 pp 457–469.

Von Duyke, K. and Matasov, E. (2015). Flowery math: a case for heterodiscoursia in mathematics problems solving in recognition of students’ authorial agency. Pedagogies: An International Journal. 11:1. pp 1-21

Warner, L.B. and Schorr, R.Y. (2014). Teachers’ evolving understanding of their students’ mathematical ideas during and after classroom problem solvin. Proceedings of the 7th International Conference of Education, Research and Innovation, Seville, Spain, pp 669-677.

%d bloggers like this: