Showing posts from 2006

No ivory in those towers

People often speak of academics as living in an "ivory tower". I am writing this as a reaction to this claim. Of course, I cannot speak about every academic, just the many who have taught me.

Today, I am due to meet with my thesis supervisor. As it is a public holiday, except at universities, he has agreed to meet with me in my local area, where he also lives. He sent me an email today, which I am including with slight modifications:
I am still happy to meet this afternoon. I am presently taking part in a telelink conference with Europe from 2 am until 1 pm - so I will need a couple of hours sleep after that. What about if we make it 4:30 pm? Would that suit you? Maybe confirm by email and then phone [number omitted] at 4:15 pm, just to make sure that I am awake. Hope to see you then.Like us school teachers, university staff work weekends, nights and are constantly bullied by law makers. Unlike us, however, they do not get frequent holidays to recover. During their students…

Do they need to walk before they fly?

Two weeks ago, a colleague of mine said something to me which has been playing on my mind ever since. We mentioned the students' difficulties with spelling and grammar. As an English teacher, he said that there were two schools of thought: one which insisted on correctness and one which preferred to engage the students in high-level thinking. He was of the second school, and said "you cannot do both".

I tend to agree that you have to favour (blogger does not like my non-US spelling of this word!) one approach over the other, due to lack of time. As we are asked to engage the students in higher-order thinking and as we are encouraged to deliver the curriculum using multiple media, should we let go of the rigours of the past?

One model I would like to present for your consideration is the French education system. Everything I say here may have changed of late, so feel free to correct me. French grammar, with its difficulty, is taught to the nth degree until grade 9 (troisièm…

Why go to university?

Once every term, I meet with two friends from teachers' college. We have coffee and update each other on what we have been up to since our last meeting. Today, we had such a meeting and spent quite some time discussing the purpose of going to university.

I began by contrasting the American and Australian university systems. I am a big fan of the American model of generic bachelor degrees followed by a professional Master's degree. The university of Melbourne is moving towards such a system, and people are now referring to it as "the Melbourne model".

Lara asked Bill and me what we thought the purpose of a university was: to train people for jobs, further people's knowledge in a given field or raise the educational level of the general population. More and more universities in Melbourne are declaring their hand and defining themselves as training centres - even though they do not use that exact phrase.

Bill said that he would return to uni to do something different, …

Helping girls learn Mathematics

Lately, I came across a few commentaries on this important topic in the popular media. I have also received a summary of a research project through my thesis supervisor. Naturally, as a teacher at a girls' school, I am very interested.

Just slug it out like the boys: The first serious attempt at tackling the issue brings us to an excellent Simpsons episode - girls just want to have sums! I always take the Simpsons seriously, and they seem to really care about education. If you know the episode, you can skip the next two paragraphs.

In this episode, Principal Skinner lets fly that he thinks girls are more likely to struggle with maths and science. He gets booed and, eventually, fired. The new principal, a feminist, divides the campus into two, so the boys do not drown out the girls with their loud voices.

In the girls' half of the campus, a different sort of maths is taught. One which is unlike that of men - something to be worked out and attacked. Instead, maths becomes something…

This rectangle is a square

Earlier this year, my nephew visited from overseas with his Maths holiday homework. He was on summer holidays between years 8 and 9. This is one of the questions I can translate:

Show that a rectangle ABCD, such that AB=√125 and BC=3√45 - 2√20 is a square.

You could post your answer in the comments field or try it with your students and post their answers instead.


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Solution to the make up four puzzle

A virtual star to Mr. B. on solving the puzzle. Remember, the idea is to move only one stick to make the equation correct:

Starting postions: | + || + ||| = 4
Solution: | + | + | + | = 4
(move one of || to make a "+" with the middle stick in |||)

I have made a little Flash animation to demonstrate it, but I can't figure out how to upload this to Blogger. If you know, please advise.


Make up four: a puzzle

A colleague gave me this puzzle yesterday. It is very cool.

Rearrange the sticks on the left hand side of the equal sign, so the sum does equal 4.

| + || + ||| = 4

Note: The plus signs are also made up of sticks.

Post your answers in the comments field.

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Merit-based pay and formative assessment

Several reports have been released of late telling the government to lift the financial status of teachers if the shortage -both current and looming- of Maths, Science, and LOTE teachers is to be solved. The past two federal ministers of education, Brendan Nelson and Julie Bishop, have responded to such reports by asking their state counterparts to implement a merit-based pay scale for teachers.

Teacher unions are usually opposed to such ideas. They argue that good measures for teacher effectiveness are lacking and that such moves would be divisive as they would promote competition in the staff room.

The Education Wonks have an editorial (or wonkitorial as they call it) commenting on a scheme in Iowa which links teachers' pay to the grades achieved by their students in standardised tests. They point out that some research studies have shown that students do not take these tests seriously enough, and teachers would end up being penalised for their students' carelessness. In anot…

Have an inspirational (or hopeful) story? Submit them here

Over at rickety contrivances of doing good, Susan is planning on starting a carnival of hope. Why not contribute a post to such a great idea. Unfortunately, time is running out for the first issue. Come on bloggers, we are interesting people to whom many good things happen. Let's share them with the world!

Also, at spunky homeschool, they are running a contest for inspirational educational stories. You could win yourself a digital camera.


Answer to PQR puzzle

Yeo Hui gets the -virtual- cake for solving the problem first. Mr. Person has again provided the most publishable solution:

It was easy enough to test the cases here. There are only 4 possibilities--444, 555, 777, and 888--that could possibly give three-digit quotients with all digits being different. Looks like it's 444: 148 x 3 = 444.
The answer is therefore C. 13

Students' response to the death of Steve Irwin

After school on Tuesday, I went to the room where I normally teach my Year 9s to leave a message on the whiteboard. I saw a cross with the words: R. I. P. Steve Irwin. I imagined that it was a joke or something left from a drama presentation. I then learned that it was true when I turned on the radio in my car.

The reaction to Steve's death has been phenomenal in Australia. It is being compared with the reaction to the death of Lady Di. This is surprising to me as Australians are normally very harsh on their celebrities. Steve himself had remarked how he was not as appreciated in his own country as in the US. He referred to the "cultural cringe" that we often talk about.

What really surprised me was the amount of grief of my year 7 students. In the morning, during the 10 minute "homeroom" assembly, we say a prayer and the students get to pray for special intentions. The last two days have been dominated by prayers for Steve and his family. The girls seem to ident…

The latest in education carnivals

For those who want to keep their finger on the pulse (Ok, I am running out of intro lines!):
The Carnival of education is over at Get On the BusThe Teaching carnival is over at WorkbookThe Carnival of homeschooling is over at Why homeschool?Enjoy,

Puzzle: here's the product, what is the sum

The following is a question from the 2005 Australian Mathematics Competition - Junior Division (years 7 & 8):

In the multiplication

x 3

each of P, Q and R represents a different digit. The sum of P, Q and R is
(A) 16 (B) 14 (C) 13 (D) 12 (E) 10

If you know the answer, send it with an explanation to

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It's a tough world out there!

Lately, I came across a chain letter purporting to report a speech given by Bill Gates at a high school. It lists the things that school does NOT teach (we are apparently meant to shout the "NOT") and how "politically correct teachings created a generation of kids with no concept of reality". At the same time, a blogger on The Age website also posted on the things we didn't learn at school.

Schools must tell kids to expect a harsh boss. "Rule 4: If you think your teacher is tough, wait till you get a boss." "... very few employers are interested in helping you FIND YOURSELF. Do that on your own time." I must say that all my employers, both in industry and in teaching, have been very accommodating. I would have been badly prepared by my school if they had planted suspicion of employers in my mind.

Schools must teach kids everything they will ever need in the world of work. "... how to survive a poorly run meeting ... how to prepare a po…

Another puzzle

Those who enjoyed solving 100 pirates will want to take a look at the 2 Numbers puzzle, on Naught Much. Other people's solutions are in the comments, so be sure not to cheat!


Solution to the priates puzzle

Thank you to those who participated in the puzzle.

The solution in words:
If a number of pirates need only one shoe and of the others half need no shoes and the other half need two shoes, then on average each pirate needs one shoe. So, the answer is 100 shoes.

Algebraic solution, thanks to Mr. Person:
Let x = the number of one legged pirates, and let y = the number of pirates with two legs. If all y pirates wore shoes, we would need 2 y shoes for this group.
But only half wear shoes, so we only need y shoes for this group. And since we only need x shoes for the one-legged (one shoe per pirate), the total number of shoes
required turns out to be equal to x + y, which is simply the number of pirates.

Also, thanks to S. Elsnick who pointed out that some assumptions needed to be made in solving this problem: all of the one-legged pirates always wear one shoe; there are no pirates without at least one leg; no pirates have three legs; the remaining half of the two-legged pirates always wear …

100 Pirates: a puzzle

Here's a puzzle posed by a student to a colleague of mine. If you can solve it, then please email me:
A certain number of pirates are one-legged. Of the remainder, half never wear shoes. If there are 100 pirates in total, how many shoes will they need?I look forward to your submissions.Elias.

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The most useful course I took at university

One frustration I had with my graduate diploma of education was the fact that we were expected to read a lot of research papers, without being provided with any relevant training. We did not know enough about research methodologies to be able to read the papers critically.

When I went back to uni to do an MEd, I took a course specifically dedicated to reading Maths Ed. research. I was lucky that the course ran with only one enrollment - mine! The university felt guilty for not promoting the course well enough and let the lecturer go ahead and run it. Later on, a DEd student joined in and a Phd student was attending at the lecturer's request.

This was by far the most practical course I have taken in education. Each week we looked at a different methodology - quantitative, case study, ethnography etc...- and each of us gave a report on a relevant paper. What made the course immediately applicable to my teaching practice was the fact that the lecturer allowed us to follow our own inter…

Help! My nerdy humour is not working

I wanted to liven up a very serious revision lesson with my year 10 IT class. So I used some nerdy humour. I jumbled up some sentences on how computers catch a virus and how these can be removed. When rearranged, the paragraph reads:
Comic book guy opened a file from an unknown source. A virus installed itself on his computer. The virus infected his files. Comic book guy panicked. He ran anti-virus software. The files were disinfected. Comic book guy breathed a sigh of relief, and celebrated with a Vegemite sandwich.Next to this was a cartoon of the comic book guy (from the Simpsons) saying: "No emoticon could describe how I feel".

Needless to say, they thought it was a very lame joke :-(

Hip people out there, can you help me? Or am I beyond help?


The 81st carnival of education

Thanks to the very efficient education wonks, this week's canival of education is now up and ready for your reading pleasure.


You do the curly whirly and you turn around ...

Most Maths teachers would be familiar with the following algorithm for converting mixed numbers into improper fractions. Improper fractions are those where the numerator (top number) is greater than the denominator (bottom number). Thanks to Mr. Person for the illustration.

Basically, you get the numerator of the improper fraction by multiplying the whole number by the denominator and adding the result to the numerator. Fabulous and very sensible! I am being sarcastic, in case you cannot tell :-)

Every year I revise this topic with my year 8s and they all know some part of this algorithm by heart and usually forget another. They fumble through "you times by the bottom and plus by the top". The poor souls get to repeat this, until they use proper verbs (add to, not plus by)!
Not one of them can explain why this works, or is interested in knowing why this works.

This year, I have the fortune of having a year 7 class instead of my usual year 8s. They were happy thinking: one and a …

It's hanging on the fridge!

I began this semester with a new year 9 class. Two weeks into the semester, one of the students invited me to a talk she was giving in her English class entitled "why I despise Maths"! The student certainly displayed a negative attitude in class, though she did achieve a high mark on the test.

At parent-teacher interviews, I learned that she enjoyed creative subjects. I suggested that, since we were learning "linear graphs", she could try out the virtual beadloom software. Today she announced to me that she had made a beadloom and enjoyed it. I asked her to show it to me, but she said "It's at home, hanging on the fridge!" She then turned to her neighbour and began to describe the activity.

As you can imagine, I was so delighted. A piece of Maths work is on display at a year 9 student's house!


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The 80th Carnival of Education

If you're after news, opinions and all things education, then check out this week's Carnival of Education at the Education Wonks.

What is wrong with rote learning?

The Victorian curriculum seems to be built on one of two assumptions: either people do not have memories, or else their memories need to be left unused. To my knowledge, the students are never asked to memorise poems or mathematical definitions.

A year level coordinator once told me about an English teacher who made the students repeat a poem until they could recite it by heart. That took place during an excursion. When they were back at school, many students commented that they had never realised one could remember something if one repeated it over and over! These were 15 year olds who had not developed strategies for memorisation. I once read about Western hostages in Beirut, and how they kept themselves sane by reciting their favourite poems.

The other day I was describing a project on the Pythagorean Theorem to my nephew, a French educated 17-year old from the middle east. I first asked him if he knew the theorem. He thought for a couple of seconds and said: "Dans un triangle c…

Remarkable Jackie

In my first two years of teaching, I taught a remarkable girl, whom I will refer to as Jackie. She was the type of student who had to know why everything was the way it was. She always asked me to show her the veracity of theorems and the reason that any particular algorithm actually worked.

I must say that I always welcome this kind of inquisitiveness, and get frustrated by the fact that many of my students have been irreparably convinced that Mathematics was a subject where thinking had little to do with success! I often allowed myself to be manipulated into teaching the traditional way: the teacher gives lots of notes and then sets work from the textbook.

Jackie was different in this respect. Her questions were a breath of fresh air, especially when she was in year 8. That particular group was a difficult one to work with. They were very nice girls, but not the type for whom thinking or a high level of self discipline came naturally.

My biggest frustration was when I could not answer …

Grateful for every day?

Yesterday, a colleague asked me whether growing up in a time of war had changed me. Did I savour each day of my life?

Given his apparent expectations, My answer must have been disappointing. The fact is that, like most people I know, I live a life disproportionately dominated by mundane concerns. I plan for and worry about the future as though I were sure to live a long life.

One thing that I have learned from the war was the importance of a good education. When you hope to make a future for yourself outside your country of birth, education is your only passport. It is a sacred thing.

I remember many people using the war as a pretext for the way they lived. Those who stole or fought with militias said that the circumstances of life necessitated their behaviour. Those who turned to God, pointed to the absurdity of the things of this world. Everything was truly ephemeral and almost everything was pointless.

I was surrounded mainly by people in the latter category. I think their love for Go…

C'est la politique qui prime

I remember a time in my youth when a the leader of a militia was doing the rounds of universities. In one of his speeches, he emphasised the French proverb, "c'est la politique qui prime". Loosely translated, this means "Politics before all else". He argued that the students' education could not take precedence, sincec an unstable country would not provide them with a future. All considerations had to make way for politics.

I believe that people who love freedom and who have strong convictions always defy reality. A committed Christian forgoes some income to keep Sunday mornings free. A practising Jew limits his social engagements to keep the Sabbath. A determined student studies despite the bombs that take away both the peace and lights of his study area.

Obviously, my upbringing in a war torn country provided me with many opportunities to defy reality. I was blessed with parents who did not wrap me in cotton wool, and instead allowed me to grow and explore …

How I became a teacher?

Here's opening one's soul:

I remember one day discussing with my dad the fact that I wanted to study Education at university. He encouraged me to read about education and keep it as a hobby, but counselled me to do something which would earn me a more decent wage. I suppose this is not unusual, especially where I was born, where pursuit of a living wage often meant emigrating to the West or taking a post in the Gulf states.

The idea kept simmering in my mind, even though I completed an engineering degree and worked for a major telecommunications company. In the year 2000, I requested permission to apply for a training position in Europe. It turned out to be an inopportune time for my department to let go of any of its members. A few months later, we were closed down by the parent company and I found work as a trainer, contracting to a large US company.

The IT slump hit hard towards the end of 2001 and, despite signing with another leading software training provider, the contracts…

Good memories of a Year 8 class

In my first year of teaching, I had a great experience with a Year 8 class, which I will refer to as Year 8B. This class had a good reputation with the humanities teachers. They spoke well, discussed things, but did not put their heads down for skills practice in Maths. I found them ok but not as responsive as my homeroom, 8A across the corridor. I attended a seminar run by a classroom management guru, Dr Ramon Lewis, and decided to try his methods with them.

We agreed on some rewards which they would get for displaying the expected behaviours. A couple arranged a special deal with me: 10 ticks for good behaviour would result in a letter of commendation to their parents. From the beginning, I told the class that I was not comfortable with the use of rewards and that I would eventually retract them. I simply wanted to give some of them an incentive to work well and find out that they can achieve in Maths.

Well, the system worked really well for many of them and only one student made an i…

Report writing

I did not post anything the last two weeks, much to the disappointment of this blog's 2 readers! I was writing reports for my students! The reports came in two formats: the usual school format for the IT classes, and the new "plain English" format for the Maths classes.

For two weeks, I turned in at midnight and got up at dawn. My poor wife was being woken up by my alarm clock. I started making silly mistakes towards the end of that period. For instance, I photocopied only one side of double sided Maths sheets. I fell for a tricky joke which my year sevens played on me! They rubbed their elbows and said, "can you rub your shoulder like this?" Needless to say what my mistake was.

All this is now history, until reports collation night next Wednesday. The last weekend was wonderful. My wife, daughter and I went away on Friday night and returned to Melbourne on Sunday morning. That was wonderful!

Now it's Monday night, and the long weekend is over. I have to spend…

Teaching is a privilege

Often teachers, including me, talk about how overworked, underpaid and misunderstood we are. To be fair, though, most of the teachers I work with also have a sense that teaching is both a vocation and a privilege. To be part of the lives of young people can be an awesome experience.

Lately, I have had a sense of this privilege. The creative arts festival, to which I refer in the earlier post "every student has a gift", really showed me what a brilliant bunch of kids I work with. I also enjoyed their encouragement for my participation in the staff item. A colleague of mine wrote an entry in his blog in which he declared: "I pity the teacher who only gets to see his/her students from the other side of the desk".

On the same day as the festival, I received a letter from the principal confirming her approval for me to work on a part-time basis next semester. I had asked for this arrangement as I am trying to carry out a research project for my Master of Education degree…

Every student has a gift

Lately, I heard about a former student of mine getting high honours for her achievements in drama. I remember looking at a colleague who, like me, had taught her Maths, and saying: "she was a scatter brain in Maths!" Of course, I meant it in a nice way. We had both spoken about that student and thought that she was very intelligent but lacked motivation to do well in Mathematics.

Earlier in the week, our college held its annual festival of creative arts. The talent on show was amazing. Over 400 students (out of ~ 1150) took part. Many students who have difficulties in academic subjects displayed great ability in music, drama or dance. Of course, there were also the all-rounders who excelled at everything.

As I sat and listened to the awesome orchestra playing Holst's Jupiter, I remembered my schooling years. I also attended a single sex Catholic school, though in my case it was a boys' school. Music and, to a large extent, sport were seen as extra-curricular. There is …

The new "plain English" report cards and formative assessment

The former federal minister for education, Brendan Nelson, wanted schools across the nation to give students A to E grades on their performance in all subjects. The Victorian government's adaptation of the new system has taken this to the extreme - extreme folly, that is. Students will receive A-E grades on the following "dimensions" of Mathematics:
Number;Measurement and Chance and Data;Space;Working Mathematically; andStructure
While the government is advertising the new "plain English" report cards, I wonder how many parents know what "structure" and "working mathematically" refer to. So, my school will be doing the right thing by the parents and adding our usual very high to low ratings on each topic.

Getting an A in the new system is reserved for those who are working "well above" their year level. The majority of students will be getting a C, which means that they are working at their year level.

The need to assess for so many d…

Little time with family

Last week, I was on year 7 camp. This was a great experience. I got to challenge myself and my fear of crazy rides. I was quite sick going into the camp, which is why I packed cold and flu tablets. I ended up doing the ropes course, 18 metre high giant swing etc...

Back from camp, there was little time to rest. Saturday, I had a conference to attend. My head of faculty and I gave a workshop on digital portfolios. The audience seemed to have a lot of questions, which I guess is a good sign. Normally, we would have stayed for the next two sessions and then the finger food and social interaction. Instead, we just headed home to our families. After my daughter slept, I updated an article I had submitted to a peer reviewed publication and sent it off to the editor.

I felt good about the two additions to my resume, though I wish I had more time to spend with the family. I had made both committments last year, before I got so busy. A cartoon in our conference presentation showed a man pointing…