Tag Archives: maths conference

Maths Conference Bristol #MathsConf18

This blog post is a write up of my fifth maths conference held on 9th March 2019 in Bristol. Run by La Salle Education, the conferences are attended by around 400 maths teachers, trainers, suppliers, academics, tutors and just about anyone who is passionately into maths education. The maths teaching ecosystem is very diverse indeed and I learn so much from fellow professionals who live and breathe maths teaching. In this post I cover my thoughts straight after the conference with some reflection on how I have used what I learnt nearly 3 months ago.

TLDR ; I got a deeper appreciation of the idea of unity, the unit, one.

Pre-conference Friday drinks

As on previous occasions I travelled up to conference city on the Friday afternoon to tutor my Friday evening students online from the hotel room. After tutoring I headed to the Friday night pre-conference drinks; one of my absolute favourite parts of the whole experience. Conference day on Saturday is an intense day so I really like the Friday to relax into it all over some drinks. At the bar I got a chance to check in and catch up with some of the teachers I’ve got to know through La Salle and I also made some new connections. Tutoring is an isolated profession and it is so useful to share experiences with other maths teachers.

When the bar closed there was only one thing to do, go to another bar. And like Manchester #mathsconf15, the last men standing ended up exploring the nightclub scene. An epic time was had dancing to 1990s tunes.

Onwards to conference day itself.

Workshop 1 : Rekenreks rock, the new manipulative on the block

This workshop was delivered by Amy How who has recently become the ambassador of this invaluable manipulative. I learned about this manipulative recently from the Bernie Westacott video podcast with Craig Barton and from Mark McCourt’s workshops on CPAL and Multiple representations. Since I work with a few Dyscalculia students I am always seeking new ways of developing number sense for students. The Rekenrek turned out to be a tool that can be used for far more than developing number sense alone.

Rekenrek

The Rekenrek is an invaluable manipulative. This is a 10 row version.

I used the Rekenrek for about two months previous to this conference for number bond work, doubles and subtraction but nothing more than that so far. So frankly I was blown away by how much more is possible with this manipulative from Amy’s workshop. Starting from the very simple idea:

  • Build it
  • Say it
  • Write it

The building part is moving the red and white beads, saying affirms the language and writing it gets it into symbolic form. Amy showed us how to use the beads to show the times tables in action through various arrangements. The patterns that started to emerge by exploring the six times tables got some aha moments in the room.

The 100 bead rekenrek can be used to build fluency for the number bonds of 50, 100, rounding and working out the times tables. We moved to the idea that a 10-row 100 bead rekenrek could also just represent one. Meaning that the same manipulative can also be used to embed the idea of fractions, decimals and proportional thinking. It is so clear and obvious when two fifths of 30 is explored by selecting two rows (of 10 each) out of five. There is an elegance and clarity to using this manipulative and while I initially made the mistake of thinking they are suitable for just number bond work, I have started using these with older students for fractions, decimals, percentages and ratio work.

One other small but important thing I implemented straightaway after this workshop was the idea of “one finger one push” to move the beads. Previously if students were to count the beads out by touching them and moving them one by one then I would let them do that. I realised that for one of my tutees who counts in clusters of one, this had to be corrected immediately. 3 months on and I have used this manipulative with various tutees now, including a superb virtual version of it on the mathsbot site.

Amy’s workshop had primed me with the idea that we can make something ‘one’ and then work from there. This theme of one or the unit then ended up repeating in nearly all the workshops I attended.

Workshop 2 : Cuisenaire rods, Metallica and the one

This workshop was given by Drew Foster who is a big fan of puzzles, manipulatives and hosts #BrewEdPreston. I got a set of original Cuisenaire rods back in 2015 after my Dyscalculia training with Patricia Babtie. For a good three years I used them mostly for number bond and number sense work. I have become more drawn in and fascinated tutoring number bonds over the last 3 years, there is something very profound about them. A few months ago I got some training on how to use Cuisenaire rods from the La Salle CPAL and Multiple representations CPD courses which has accelerated my use of these to no end. I am starting to find so many ways in which you can use these, with students at various stages of their maths learning journey. They are so useful for secondary maths as well; from arithmetic sequences, linear equations, ratios, percentages, area scaling, volume scaling and surface area to volume ratio. I am merely at the tip of the iceberg in terms of their full application.

Drew gave each table a set of Cuisenaires to play around with and move about. He stressed the idea that we should try and see things from the children’s point of view. You have to move these around physically first until stumbling into the right answer through the right combination of the rods. I was making the mistake initially of trying to do things in my heads and then move the rods about. We did a bunch of basic exercises at first from setting up equations in colour, to staircases and a pyramid.

The moments that wowed us all were how a simple ‘up and down staircase’ which looks like a Stats distribution and is linked to square numbers as well. We were also shown how Quadratic factorisation could be shown using the rods. Although I have used Algebra tiles for quadratic factorisation I never linked it using it with cuisenaire rods.

Cuisenaire rods.

We were shown the video below which is the ‘cuisenaire rods way of the zen’. All to the soundtrack of Enter Sandman by Metallica, my head was bobbing along for that one for sure or was that from the Macarena a few hours earlier at Popworld?

The fact that you can make one anything you like and then the other rods take on a different value is very profound. A couple of tutor colleagues who were at the workshop have now bought their own cuisenaire sets, remembering not to buy any sets with graduations or marks on them which Drew stressed are not the right type of rods. They must have no writing or markings on them. The beauty of these rods is that by keeping them free of any markings you can make them whatever value you want them to take. I was so inspired by this workshop to use this manipulative more and a few months on I have innovated their use in online tutoring ever more. I intend to write more about this in future blog posts.

Workshop 3 : Creativity and Curiosity, there’s more to maths than convergence

Even if creativity is not assessed it is important

As a tutor I often feel the pressure in helping a student prepare for an imminent high stakes exam, particularly for Year 11, 13 or 11+/13+ prep. Every tutoring hour has to count, not just the teaching itself but in supporting the tutee, communicating how the system works to the parents and showing the tutee how to revise by themselves in a structured way. Teaching for a test or exam is very ‘convergent’ in that way. There is a right answer to be got as quickly as possible.

Andrew Sharpe’s presentation reminded us why we really got into maths and how creative it can be. We started off with a number grid puzzle and a coordinate grid exercise. It was ok to fumble about and come to the solution, and in that fumbling process is the joy of discovery.  Trial, improvement, iterative processes are all part and parcel of the overall learning process in maths. He encouraged us to make up our own puzzles and for students to do so as well.

An exercise in divergent thinking that I remember was of the ‘Alternative Uses Test’ where 10 alternative uses of a brick should be brainstormed. Highly successful people are creative thinkers and problem solving itself is a creative endeavour. Some students like to think divergently rather than convergently, which is certainly something I have encountered as well. Andrew gave plenty of examples using number maths and geometry for the Alternative uses.

This workshop has inspired me to bring that creativity to more of my students. I do some fairly divergent teaching to those who are homeschooled but there is no reason to have elements of it with other tutees. During preparation for an exam gears have to be switched completely but there’s always some scope for creative and explorative thinking. Most importantly this presentation helps me give myself permission that divergent teaching is all part and parcel of overall teaching and in getting the best out of students. Andrew’s presentation for this workshop with some very useful extra resources are on here.

Workshop 4 : Unit Conversions, metre rules and following the multiplicative arrow

Jo Morgan’s in depth series of presentations are invaluable and I often refer to her presentation notes on the other in depth series, all available on her site here. For this topic on unit conversions Jo started off by mentioning that while unit conversions is not a big topic like solving quadratics or angles, it is a topic that often carries a lot of easy marks and students miss out on these.

She mentioned that units are covered first in Year 3 and then consistently again every year until Year 6. In fact students see mixed units like 1 kg 200 grams very early on in their maths journey and often year 6 students can know their millilitre <–> litre conversions better than Year 11 students. I often teach Year 6/7 students back to back with Year 11 ones and have observed this too. Somewhere in the middle years students don’t see unit conversions as often and lose that fluency in this topic. Jo showed us several examples of GCSE students losing fairly straightforward marks on unit conversions, both in the higher and foundation tier from examiner reports and example scripts (AQA and Edexcel boards). Quite often students were losing marks in just getting the simple decision on whether to multiply or divide the conversion factor.

The presentation then followed the structure of following this strategy in converting units.

  • Step 1: Be fluent in multiplying and dividing by powers of 10
  • Step 2 : Memorise the conversions
  • Step 3 : Perform the conversions

Step 1 is a self evident prerequisite and so Jo covered the other two steps.

Step 2 is all about memorising and recalling the conversion factors. There are surprisingly few conversions to be memorised for GCSE maths in the full range of conversions and all these are given below from one of the slide presentations. I have highlighted in purple the ones that need to be memorised.

GCSE maths unit conversions (from presentation by Jo Morgan)

This then lead to the discussion and history on why the adoption of the metric system. One interesting fact that I didn’t know was that the prefixes for bigger units (kilo, hecto, deca etc.) are Greek and the smaller ones are Latin (centi, deci, milli etc.). Definitely very useful to know and a great point of discussion for A Level Physics students who need to be aware of the fuller spectrum of units.

To remember units using manipulatives Jo mentioned that an actual metre rule is essential to show to students and water bottles also help. I really like bottles of water in addition to how useful they are to get a feel for volumes. They have lots of lovely Chemistry stuff on the labels, including the ions present, the charge on them, the exact type of plastic (polymerisation) and the concentration of the ions (a compound unit in chemistry that GCSE students also need to know). Lots of Chemistry and maths in water bottles.

Step 3 is carrying out the strategy once students have memorised the actual conversions. There are a number of methods possible, from ratio tables to Don Steward type grids and for calculator papers it can all be done on the new Classwiz calculators. This is very useful to know as I have a few IGCSE students who would benefit from getting the new calculators as both their papers are calculators.

The method that really appealed to me was ratio tables. I have seen them appear on twitter but only during the talk I realised how invaluable a technique it is, a very simple layout with the arrows representing the direction of multiplication. Going against the arrow means to divide. This will be very handy indeed for many of my students. The method that was very popular amongst maths teachers was “Last man standing”. It is a neat method using the idea that (100cm/1m) can be expressed as 1 and then the units can be ‘cancelled down’. I’ll refer to the excellent interpretation of Last Man Standing by Mr. Bracewell and Jo’s presentation slides referenced earlier.

This presentation gave me plenty of thought on another interpretation of the unit as being one and how you can use it convert between units. I tutor the Sciences at GCSE as well and dimensional analysis is very useful indeed there. Ratio tables to convert between units is something I certainly want to implement and last man standing is a useful new technique to have in the teaching toolbox.

Nearly three months on the thing I have used most is the use of ratio tables with my two GCSE retake tutees, particularly the idea of ‘going against the arrow’ to divide. Teaching students for an imminent exam when time is short does require such shortcuts which I feel can be justified for the long term benefits it will bring to the student’s future chances. As for what division sense actually is and how to convey the idea to students over the long term, that was covered in the next workshop.

Workshop 5 : Time to revisit…Division, the beast of division tackled

This was the first time I attended one of Pete Mattock’s talks having chatted to him before about the use of Algebra tiles and other manipulatives. In the preview blog post for this workshop he mentioned that “Professor Emeritus in the department of education at the University of Oxford calls division ‘The Dragon’. Those pupils who slay ‘The Dragon’ tend to go on to do well in mathematics; whilst those who don’t tend to struggle from that point on.”

Cuisenaire rods and counters

There’s certainly a lot of truth in this. Making sense of division has many important implications further down the line, including unit conversions which I had just seen on the workshop before. By being able to make sense of the division process from the very outset using the appropriate concrete and pictorial methods as support, a long term framework can be built up for pupils to understand the process of division. Concrete and pictorial methods eventually being faded out. I am currently reading Pete’s book ‘Visible Maths’ that looks at a variety of topics from different representations of whole numbers, powers and roots, the laws of arithmetic to algebraic manipulations. Division being just one of the topics in that book that was presented during this workshop.

Double sided counters and cuisenaire rods were the two manipulatives used during this workshop with delegates having ample opportunity to move the manipulatives around on each table. Counters being used to show the discrete view of division. 12 ÷ 3 can be shown as 12 being put into groups with 3 counters in each group (creating 4 groups) or 12 being shared into 3 shares (with 4 counters in each share).

Left : 3 counters in each group (creating 4 groups) Right : 12 being shared into 3 ‘shares’

Using the other side of the counters can then be used to show division where negative integers are involved. The red side of the counter represents -1 while the yellow side represents +1. Putting a red and yellow counter together creates a zero pair. Having a line of 12 reds represents -12 which are then put into groups containing three -1 counters, representing -3 together. Thus creating 4 groups.

Red counters for demonstrating division with negative counters (see blog post)

300 ÷ 20 can be demonstrated by making the 20 as 1 (in the same way as shown in Drew’s earlier workshop). Once the cuisenaire train of 20 is 1 then it is easy to make a multiplicative comparison with 300. 15 multiples of the ‘1’ unit.

And how to tackle the beast of division itself? Division and fractions. Again a multiplicative comparison is used to compare part to “whole”. The part being assigned the value of 1. Pete talks about fraction division in his podcast with Mr Barton, which is an excellent and more comprehensive description of the idea.

We finished off with a practical context where a simple speed, distance, time context could be visualised using the idea of multiplicative comparison. Speed is the distance travelled in unit time, i.e the distance traveled in one hour, one minute, one second etc. The example used was finding the time when 75 miles are covered at an average speed of 20 miles per hour. Once again 20 is made into the unit, i.e one. There are 3 of those complete units of 1 hour time ‘blocks’ and a remainder. The remainder being 15 out of 20 = ¾.

75 miles covered at an average speed of 20 miles per hour. 20 is called the unit, i.e one. There are 3 of those complete units of 1 hour time ‘blocks’ and a remainder. The remainder (not drawn in) being 15 out of 20 = ¾

The idea that really stuck with me, from Pete, Jo, Amy and Drew’s workshops being that the ‘unit’ is of profound significance. Exactly what that means was summed up by a tutee of mine in the last days of GCSE exam preparation with the quote at the end of this blog post.

Summing up the whole experience, this was by far my most favourite MathsConf so far. I am grateful to all those teachers who put in so much effort to run these workshops for the rest of us. And big thanks to the La Salle team and visionary Mark McCourt for putting these together.

Nearly 3 months after this conference and just days before the final IGCSE paper, my retake tutee exclaimed with delight in that light bulb ‘aha’ moment that we teachers all live to experience.

Once you know one, you know everything!

Mission accomplished, so many things fell into place for my tutee in that moment of realisation. I can’t wait for #MathsConf19.

 

Maths Conference Birmingham #mathsconf17

This blog post is a write up of my fourth maths conference. La Salle Education run the UK’s largest network of maths teachers’ professional development along with an online platform Complete Maths. Attended by around 400 maths teachers and a few tutors, the conferences are invaluable professional development, training and networking with fellow maths teaching professionals.

TLDR : All four workshops were phenomenal as standalone workshops. In the sequence I attended them, they compounded my learning even more.

Friday – Hotel tutoring and drinks

I have Friday tutees and Saturday is my busiest tutoring day. I wasn’t going to let that get in the way of going to #mathsconf17 though so I rescheduled many of my Saturday students well in advance. I took the train on Friday morning, checked into the hotel, set up my mobile online tutoring office (laptop + graphics tablet) and away I went tutoring until the evening.

Maths Tutors UK with Mr Corbett

Selfie time with Mr Corbett!

Fellow tutor friend and conference buddy Austin (@Lazyrunner78) arrived after a long evening of his own tutoring. We had a catch up and then made it to the bar late. The Friday drinks are always so welcoming, you can join anyone and instantly share your own enthusiasm of teaching amongst fellow teachers who understand the slightly crazy passion we have for teaching maths. I met some new teachers, both local to Birmingham and those who travelled. The friendly Mr Robert Smith was welcoming as always, introducing people to each other and keeping us all ticking socially.

Speed dating with some unexpected Science

The Saturday was buzzing and La Salle CEO Mark McCourt opened the conference with an intro. His story on how the conferences started and his passion of empowering and bringing together maths educators set the scene for the day. We kicked it all off with mathematical speed dating. This was missing at #mathsconf15 so it was good to see the return. A speed date is talking to a teacher for two minutes about your best teaching ideas then hearing the teacher for two minutes. That’s one speed date, next you find a random teacher and then rinse and repeat four more times. Mark reminded us all on how a mathematical speed date in Birmingham led to a wedding two years ago. Love that story!

Andrew Taylor from AQA at #mathsconf17

Andrew Taylor from AQA.

I shared my own ideas on using manipulatives to teach from a mixture of algebra tiles to the meaning of pi experiment. Amongst my dates I met a teacher from Birmingham who was retraining from being a Chemistry teacher to teach maths. As it was his first conference he felt a bit out of place amongst so many seasoned maths teachers. I reassured him that I felt even more out of place at my first maths conference as a private tutor but now I know the community is super supportive. Since we both also taught Science it was so easy to go straight into common themes between the two. His speciality was Chemistry so we had plenty to talk about that. I had my big aha moment right at the end of the day too on maths and Chemistry. More on that later.

Workshop 1 : Tech, Tech, Tech from Steep Roads to CGI Films

This is the second time I went to Douglas Butler’s (@douglasbutler1) talk, previously seeing him at #mathsconf10. This second helping was with a different flavour. He gave an overview of some of the items on this list.

  1. Top Google Earth Objects
  2. Top Large Data Sets on the Web
  3. Top Uses of Excel
  4. Top Problem Solving Ideas
  5. Top Twitterers to Follow
  6. Top Maths Blogs
  7. Top YouTube Channels
  8. Top Mathematics Entertainment
  9. Top Dynamic Software for KS3-4
  10. Top Dynamic Software for KS5

Maths cakes #mathsconf17

Maths cakes. Perfect for sugar rush.

I have installed Google Earth pro on my computer after seeing it in action at this workshop.  I use Google maps with tutees already to show them the similarity between New York’s grid layout and the x-y system. Google Earth Pro can do so so much more though. He showed the world’s largest equilateral triangle layout, parabolas, pentagon and the world’s steepest road. He also gave us all a hearing test. The airline industry is full of amazing data that can be used to show the perils of sampling data from a population. We also got a taster of Autograph and Excel. I am amazed by what those pieces of software can do. He finished off by making an animated version of the Starship enterprise from Star Trek to show 3D dynamic geometry in action, with music included!

Douglas tells great stories and delivers with such great enthusiasm that you are drawn into the world of maths he reveals with the help of simple technology. I’ve got such great ideas from this workshop which will no doubt help my online maths tutoring for KS3, GCSE and A Level students.

All that geometry and visual representation got me in the perfect mood for Singapore maths next.

Workshop 2 : Dyscalculia, Bar Modelling and the rise of Singapore

Dyscalculia and Singapore bar modelling are massive topics. I have been to day courses on both of them before. To deliver a concise idea of the two in one workshop was no small achievement by Judi Hornigold (@DyscalculiaInfo).

Counters are a powerful tool in learning maths.

Counters are a powerful tool in learning maths.

I have totally immersed myself into tutoring and understanding Dyscalculia after going to a day workshop on it 3 years ago. Judi told us how we can better define Dyscalculia so that we can then address it. She also discussed that in many cases Dyscalculia might appear to be the issue when in fact it is maths anxiety. Anxiety triggers a fight or flight reflex shutting students down to learning maths. Again, maths anxiety is a huge topic on its own.

So how can Singapore maths help? Students and teachers in Singapore had never heard of maths anxiety to her surprise. Judi went through a brief history of Singapore maths and then we got to the fun bit! Using counters, cuisenaire rods, Singapore strips (of paper) – Singapore strips sure got some chuckles in the room. We looked at the bar model method itself for a range of situations from number bonds, ratio questions, linear equations in counters to the idea of metacognition for students. Metacognition is about building into students how and when to recognise when a problem can be reduced down and then solved in a different way, rather than applying an algorithm on autopilot. A quick example is on finding 12.5% of a large number without using a calculator. If students recognise 12.5% instantly as one eighth then they can divide the number by 8 instead.

Singapore maths and bar modelling is changing lives for children. Judi had some amazing stories of students cracking things in maths. She had stories of students in tears of joy when they figured out concepts. I can relate to that as I had a Year 11 tutee who had battled with ratios all his life. It made sense to him after just half an hour when I used the bar model with him as the very first tutoring session I ever had with him. The utter delight and sigh of relief he had at understanding ratios is something I still remember so clearly.

What an inspiring, well thought workshop. Inspiring low motivation students was just about to be covered in workshop 3.

Workshop 3 : Re-visioning success and the marigolds of multiplication

Julia Smith (@tessmaths) is a motivational power house, absolutely no doubt about it. She works with some of the least motivated students, those who have retaken GCSE maths and in some cases, are still retaking. She has found many ways of motivating students and has some excellent methods on how to help them revise and pass their exams.

Re-vision workshop at the maths conference

Re-vision workshop in the school music room.

Julia started off the talk by clarifying that if students haven’t managed to figure a method out by the age of 15 and a high stakes retake exam is imminent, then it is time to re-visit the topic in a totally different way. If a method that works for them to give them the correct answer, then no matter how procedural or ‘quick fix’ the method seems, it is more than worth it to get the student to pass, gain confidence and go on to get a better paying career in life.

She broke down the word Re-vision into re and vision. I had never thought about it this way so this was very refreshing. We also discussed possible answers to the “I hate maths” line from demotivated students and a tea towel of her revision techniques was given to one of her favourite responses.

I am really torn when I have to teach to the test rather than teach for understanding. I will switch to teaching for the test in cases when I have to. To many of my students their dream might be to work in Veterinary Science, Sports Science, Nursing, Music Tech or something that requires that all important maths pass. I’ve got such students over the maths hurdle and it is truly satisfying.

Amongst her top tips was the idea of double marking past papers, one with the real mark and the other with what the mark could have been with all slip ups and silly errors were given. Getting students to visualise tough moments in exams and to work out strategies to overcome those tough moments and to continue. Her centrepiece was her toolbox, which amongst other methods uses the marigolds of multiplication. This helps students to instantly figure out the times tables of 6,7,8 and 9. It works and will get students out of jail when they most need it, I really liked it! The other technique that I learnt was Vedic multiplication using just line strokes and counting for long multiplication. Again, what a superb technique.

Maths Tutors UK Facebook group tutors

Maths Tutors UK unite.

She also stressed that the way to do maths is to do lots of it, the importance of good exam technique and plugging gaps in the nine basics. Corbettmaths revision cards were mentioned amongst mathsbot and a few other great revision resources.

What came across so well is Julia’s energy and a can-do attitude to get her students over that line. I will take a lot away from this workshop and have new found courage to help my GCSE retake tutees.

On to workshop 4. I was already primed for linear equations from the bar modelling workshop earlier in the day.

Workshop 4 : Atomising Linear Equations and an aha moment with Chemistry

Choosing this fourth workshop was a tough decision indeed. Between Jo Morgan’s workshop on solving quadratics, this one by Kris Boulton (@Kris_Boulton) and Pete Mattock’s one I had to pick just one. The title of this talk “How to solve linear equations, 100%, guaranteed” and a compelling description is what really sold it to me in the end. Perhaps the biggest motivating factor for me was that solving linear algebra equations is one of those pivotal key skills that once cracked, really gets students a firm grounding for algebra in general. I keep having to revisit it with some students.

Kris started off with Al Khwarizmi. This is  what I do when introducing linear algebra to students, so this struck a chord with me instantly. I ask students to google the origins of algebra and more on Al Khwarizmi’s book. We then talk about some of the words that come up, balancing, restoration, completion etc. Kris went into some detail about the appropriate use of the equivalent, equal signs and the word solve.

Atomising how to solve linear equations

Atomising how to solve linear equations

He has ‘atomised’ the process of solving one step linear equations in some very fine detail indeed, 17 steps in fact. Breaking and repairing equations was the sort of language I have not heard in this context, so it really gave me food for thought. These steps could be put into component process pretty much independent of each other.

  • Deciding
  • Simplifying
  • Breaking
  • Repairing

I was sitting next to Austin for this last talk of the day and we both tried to come to terms with the idea of breaking an equation. This careful ‘atomisation’ and the early Chemistry moment suddenly gave me a Eureka moment. At GCSE Chemistry students are given equations to balance. These are broken equations because atoms are quite literally in unbalanced numbers on both sides. Balancing equations is a nightmare topic in Chemistry and Kris’s talk has given me an idea on breaking the process down rather than teaching it as one big process from start to end.

There was a lot in this last talk of the day and by being forced to think in language I had previously not encountered I have taken a lot away from this workshop.

Fan moments, freebies and meeting other maths tutors

It is so refreshing to see more tutors turn up to these conferences. The Maths Tutors UK group has about five core members who attend these conferences and a new tutor local to the conference always joins in. It is vital that tutors get out there to such events as working in isolation has drawbacks.

CGP free books for teachers #mathsconf17

Free books from CGP!

The rest of the conference was all about goodies from CGP, maths cakes, selfies with the legend that is Mr Corbett (we were in a long queue of selfie takers!) and all round socialising.

In summary this was the best maths conference for me yet. On its own each workshop was perfection. By design or sheer coincidence the order in which the workshops followed one another complimented each other so well. Compounding at its best. Einstein wasn’t kidding when he said it is the eighth wonder of the world!

The positive, supportive, can-do energy of these conferences is what bring me back to them each time. Endless thanks to the La Salle team and Mark McCourt for making this all possible.

Stimulating CPD from #mathsconf15 Manchester

It is hard to believe that I was on my first maths conference on this day exactly one year ago. Before that I had never been to a maths CPD event in my life. In just one year I have now been to five La Salle events, #mathsconf15 being my third maths conference.

Friday night – “Take life’s experiences when they come to you”

The timing for #mathsconf15 was perfect. I had just finished a very busy tutoring season of teaching that week and this was a good time to reflect and refresh. I went to Manchester early on the Friday and met up with Daniel of Peak Tuition (@PeakTuition) for lunch. We had connected on video calls and on twitter but this was the first time we were to meet in person. After lunch I met up with fellow tutor Austin (@Lazyrunner78). We roamed around Manchester central and found Alan Turing’s statue surrounded by flowers. It was his birthday on conference day and this set the mood perfectly for the next day.

Alan Turnin's statue in central Manchester.

Alan Turnin’s statue in central Manchester.

We eventually got to the pre-conference drinks which were again absolutely brilliant. I met speakers and various teachers in a relaxed informal environment. Conference day itself is a fast roller coaster, so this was the perfect way to ease into it and meet others beforehand. The clock struck midnight and drinks had us all a bit hazy and happy. The war cry rang out from Mr Mattock and Mr Smith. “We are in Manchester, you only get a few chances in life like these so let’s explore the famous city nightlife”. Only a little arm twisting was required to convince us and so we went club hopping in Canal Lane dancing away to cheesy music. Though sensibly we stopped after a couple of clubs and went off to get a bit of sleep.

#mathsisbeautiful

Maths is beautiful intro by Andrew Taylor of AQA #mathsconf15

Maths is beautiful intro by Andrew Taylor of AQA

So what was the actual day like? The opening talk by Andrew Taylor of AQA introduced the hashtag #mathsisbeautiful What a great idea! Using images and music I personally want to show the links between maths, science and art. It is easy for most to see the beauty in the arts but with maths that art is hidden and implicit. So I hope to bring my take on this with that hashtag.

Simon Singh’s satanic hell and Simpson-e stuff

Pop and rock music culture has references to cryptic messages by artists when their songs are played backwards. From the Beatles to the Eagles with Hotel California and plenty of others. Simon Singh’s talk showed how this works for Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. Amazingly once we were told the lyrics backwards the mind had a curios way of getting meaning out of noise in a way that was really a surprise.

As Simon went through more of his stories and books, there was also mention of the term ‘Spherical bastards’ used by Swiss astronomer Fritz Zwicky as a term of insult to other astronomers in his field who he did not get along with. Someone who is a bastard no matter which way you look at them from. Zwicky was sure a grumpy one.

Simon showed a short video of Andrew Wile’s story on cracking Fermat’s last theorem. Maths can bring people to tears (the good type) and it is a passion we can all relate to. We’ve all missed meals as we were too busy solving maths problems. Andrew Wiles missed many and the moment he breaks down in tears to describe his journey was really authentic and touching.

Simon Singh talk at #mathsconf15 with The Simpsons

Euler and Lisa Simpson.

Simon Singh then moved to The Simpsons as well amongst some of the projects he is working on to help maths students. I know a lot of maths tutor friends who want to volunteer at schools. Simon has the perfect opportunity for that in his Top Top Set maths project that I would recommend you check out.

This is the second time I heard Simon talk. Simon is a superb and highly engaging speaker. La Salle put the guest speaker talk in the middle of the day rather than at the start of the day. This helped break up the day a lot better I think.

So what were the workshops I chose like? There were several workshops happening on the day but since many of them ran in parallel we were limited to 4 workshops. Tough choices had to be made and these are the ones I chose.

Workshop 1 : Indices and the importance of SLOP (Shed loads of practice)

Indices in Depth workshop in the main hall

This was the first time I heard Jo Morgan (@mathsjem) talk. She’s an excellent presenter and had a lot of invaluable things to share on indices. Megan (@MeganGuinan1) covered her talk very well in a series of tweets, so that is also one place to go for a summary and key slides. Jo was very thorough with her research. She covered the importance of the topic comprehensively from the correct use of language, history of teaching indices, SLOP, examples of indices that would easily be suitable for GCSE students and a whole load of other indices goodies.

What I took away is that one must really sit with the indices topic for a while, until the language, process and meaning of indices makes clear sense to students. Through, conscious, deliberate practice.  Rather than a one hour lesson, indices need more like 10 hours worth of lessons throughout the many years students have to get this one right. This could not be more true since I am finding that most of my A Level students get flummoxed when indices are inversed with Log operations.

It was also a relief for me that Jo confirmed what I thought all the time. Why don’t modern books have tons and tons of practice questions? 10 questions on one part of indices is not enough! I studied in the Indian system until the age of 15 and doing absolutely tons of questions per topic was the norm for me. It turned out that this was also done during the Victorian era in the UK as well. Jo called this simple idea SLOP – Shed loads of practice. Love that term.

There’s no way out of SLOP. SLOP is also needed in music practice, me and my ex-bandmate had a saying “Most of what happens in a band is so not rock ‘n roll”. What we meant was what every performing musician knows. At the start of learning a new cover (or original) song seemingly hours of mind-numbing practice have to be put in. We break down a song so meticulously into all its parts and slow the tempo down. At first this process kills the entire romance of the song. But once all the parts are nailed and put together a few times, at various tempos, the magic comes back to the song many folds. And that’s why maths feels so beautiful to mathematicians. The magic in maths happens after due diligence and practice has been given to it first.

Presentation slide by Jo Morgan on Indices at #mathsconf15

Conscious, deliberate practice of indices when students first introduced to it

There was a lot in Jo’s talk and to cover it all would take a more comprehensive blog post of its own. Her workshop was confirmation of some of the things I already do and it also gave me loads of brand new things to think about.

Workshop 2 : EdTech tools and making maths digital

This talk and interactive presentation was given by Patrick McGrath (@TH_PatrickM) of Texthelp. There is no getting away from it. I am a tech geek and this was tech talk heaven for me. When choosing my workshops I restrained myself to attend just two presentations with an EdTech flavour. Patrick was clear from the outset that technology is only an aid to learning and ultimately teachers make the real learning happen. It was great to be reminded of this again.

BitPaper as an EdTech collaborative tool

He started off the session with a pretty cool interactive where he could create a poll with 4 responses and delegates could answer with their mobile phones. As the data streamed in you could get a real time view of what everyone thought. This reminded me of the Plickers I saw at a Google EdTech conference.

There were a range of digital learning aids that Patrick went through. Too many to keep track of so I have a big list to explore. More digital toys to play with! What stuck in my head were a range of tools with interactive videos. Whiteboard type apps where students could answer questions without needing to talk, really good for quiet students. A way in which students could also record short audio and screencast snippets to show how they did the working out of questions.

With whiteboards talk there was one that was mentioned that put a mile long smile on my face. BitPaper is the tool I use all day for hours on end with my students. It was so cool to see it being shown on there. It has been an absolute game changer in my maths tutoring. It has bought colour and interactivity to my online lessons in ways I never thought were ever possible.

Many new things for me to explore after this talk which I am looking forward to.

Workshop 3 : Mind the Gap. Making Stats (even more) interesting

Statistics seems to have a terrible reputation both in popular culture (There’s lies, more lies etc) and even among maths educators.  Richard Tock (@TickTockMaths) took the challenge on to make it more interesting to us. I must admit that beyond S1 I find Stats pretty tricky too. As mathematicians we love the sense of having an exact, definitive, irrefutable answer. Stats seems to take us into new fuzzy land.

The winning maths cake

Florence Nightingale and her polar diagrams are an inspiration in the world of Stats. She bought clarity to how so much data can be crunched and presented in an elegant visual that can then be used to make real arguments based on data. Yet even I didn’t know about her commitment to Statistics until I saw the maths exhibition in London. There are no real modern Stats role models that I know of either except for the late Prof Hans Rosling. His visualisations blew me away when I first saw his talks on the BBC. And as someone who tutors both maths and Science, I really see that for Stats to have more meaning we must move it away from made up examples to real data.

One example is of normally distributed people living in a world of discrete sized t-shirts and never quite finding that perfect fit. It opens up a nice conversation on mass manufacturing methods vs tailor made clothes. Boltzmann first showed that gases have atoms shooting around at various speeds. With enough stats you can start making sense of it all and link the micro with the macro. Essentially the type of work I did in a software development team as an analyst helping build cost models of metal commodity prices. Both during my PhD and my job in commodities there was an enormous amount of data crunching, sorting and making sense of it all. So we can’t really escape Stats in the real world.

More winning. I won these books in a raffle!

Richard took us through a lot of the visualisations and examples that Prof Rosling used to have in his talks. I didn’t know you could download them from the gapminder site and have a play with them yourself. So this is something I will definitely explore.

Going back to visual stats displays, the other side of those displays are ones that are horribly inaccurate and completely misleading. Richard had plenty of examples of that from tabloids for example. He also went through the Large Data Set examples of various boards.

I am glad that I took a chance on this talk. Many of my friends work in data related jobs so I will prod them and get some ideas from them too.

Workshop 4 : Geogebra and the attack of the z axis dinasour

This workshop was given by Leona So (@lwyso). Choosing this one was a close call between choosing this one or the Desmos one. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit to all my techy tutor friends that I have never had a play with Geogebra. One reason for that is clear, it is not as intuitive as Desmos (for the simple stuff anyway). Geogebra is a complex tool with which you can do a phenomenal amount. I have used interactive tools made on it to explore circle theorems for example but have never actually made anything on it myself.

Geogebra presentation #mathsconf15

Surfing the curve with Geogebra

Leona took us through various examples live. Putting a gradient on a curve and surfing along the curve to see how the gradient changed. She extended that idea to show differentiation from first principles as well. Continuing with tangents, she showed how the derivative function can be plotted alongside the original function. Cubics lead to quadratics and quadratics lead to linear ones. All stuff that we know but to see it live gave new life to it. “Students like to see moving things” and that’s certainly true for me too.

To finish off the talk she got us all to wear 3D glasses and showed equations of lines and planes in 3D. It was like being at a 3D cinema. Instead of being attacked by dinosaurs I was being attacked by the z axis that seemed to be protruding out of the board and into the classroom. What a way to finish the last session of the last day! There was a lot to cover in the session and inevitably it was hard to replicate all the demos on our own computers at the same time. To do that would have taken a lot longer so I am glad there was a good snapshot of all the cool stuff compressed into a short workshop. Fluency in Geogebra will add a great tool to both my online A Level maths tutoring and for GCSE as well.

Now I have no excuse to explore Geogebra a lot more.

In Conclusion

I am in awe of some of the top teachers, resource makers and relentless hard workers who make these conferences happen. It gives me great hope that with such dedicated educators we do have control on how we deliver maths education in the UK and spread the knowledge of this beautiful subject.

The awesome tutors of the Maths Tutors UK collective

Thanks to La Salle for putting on the whole show. This was easily my most favorite conference of the three I have been to so far. I am a member of CompleteMaths and for the CPD alone it is worth it for me. The conference is very affordable thanks to some sponsorship from AQA. I cannot recommend these conferences to teacher and tutor friends enough. Get yourself booked up to the next maths conferences, they have dates all over the UK for the next two years. To echo what a wise man once said “Take life’s experiences when they come to you”.

My first maths Conference #mathsconf10

Cake, workshops, ideas from examination boards, new connections, free books and so much more. Here’s some thoughts on my first maths conference.

Maths and cake. A yummy combination.

Saturday morning on a London bus in Dagenham and all alone I was wondering if I am even supposed to be going to this conference as a private tutor. It was after all a classroom teachers’ event and I was feeling like a fish out of water on my way there. Luckily the active maths teaching community on twitter and teachers I know on the Maths Tutors UK Facebook group had encouraged me to go (with cake promised nonetheless). So I booked my ticket without knowing anyone else in person who was going. And what a superb decision that turned out to be!

I arrived into a huge hall of teachers and met someone I knew through the Facebook group, we had chatted before online so it was easy to get chatting in person. Even if I had known no one at all the maths conference had the perfect ice breaker with the “mathematical speed dating” later on. More on that in a bit.

Meeting up for the first time, the Maths Tutors UK gang.

The opening introductory talk was by Mark McCourt of La Salle education who organised this event. He mentioned that these conferences have only been going for 3 years, and are sponsored by AQA so they can be very cheap (my ticket was £26.87 with VAT). The idea being that it is the teachers who know best how to tackle education in this country and this is a platform to bring everyone together. One big thing he said at the start stuck with me all day:

Education is UK’s 5th largest export.

I have first hand experience of this and my tutoring business is now part of that statistic. Last year I decided to tutor all online to cut out my commute and be able to reach my Yorkshire clients without the long train journeys. To my surprise I started getting enquiries from parents in the US, India, Singapore, Malaysia, UAE and Bahrain. Some were British families abroad sending their children to British schools but many others simply chose British schools. My clients have such respect for the British education system, they equate it to a certain level of sophistication and elegance that we often don’t realise it being here in the U.K., which is also a point Mark McCourt made. My dad worked in the Indian embassy and he persuaded his senior officers to have me entered me into Braeburn primary school in Nairobi, Kenya when I was 5 years old.

The mathematical speed dating was a 2 mins session with another teacher/educator in the room. On the date you had to discuss your favourite teaching ideas and there were 4 such dates. I learnt about a puzzles book a teacher has written, the Irish education system (a teacher had travelled from Ireland to be at that conference) and a teacher who had recently been to schools in China. I exchanged ideas on how I tutor online, Dyscalculia and my “meaning of pi” experiment. The teachers had such great enthusiasm for what they do and new things they wanted to learn and share. The speed dating got me socially relaxed and ready for a full day’s worth of workshops and socialising.

Lunch time at mathsconf10.

There were 5 workshops to choose from out of 22 that were running on the day. I wish I could have chosen all 22 so going down to just 5 was a tough choice.

My first workshop was run by the chief of examiners for the AQA board for A Level on mathematical proof and notation. I was truly surprised when he pulled out a SURD rationalising the denominator question. It could be legitimately all done by typing it on the calculator and hitting the answer button to score all the marks as it was not a “show that” question. There is an increased emphasis on the use of calculators for the new A Level AQA spec. Unless of course questions explicitly ask for “show that” type proof which requires full rigour of explaining. As it happens there was a discussion going on the use of calculators on the Maths Tutors UK group on the same day. In that moment I realised the value of being right in front of a chief examiner for a board to discuss this. This was coming straight from the horse’s mouth. And it was an open discussion too so if there was anywhere I could best learn about this or let my thoughts known to the board, this was the only place to be.

Concrete material to play with.

My second workshop was run on bar models for algebra and number work. This was Christmas to me as I’ve been tutoring Dyscalculia students for a year and I’m hungry for ideas on this. There were concrete materials like numicon, cubes, counters and strips of paper. I was amazed on how differently you can approach algebra in the earlier years before introducing it an abstract manner later on. This type of bridging material is exactly what I need for my Dyscalculia teenage students. I will be attending another workshop by the same speaker in London later in July again.

My third workshop was on a new qualification by AQA called Core maths. I had taken a punt on this one as I had no idea what this workshop was going to be. This turned out to be about a ton of real world maths, calculations on loans, taxes, inflation etc., Stuff that could be taught on the actual GCSE. The presenter showed a number of student responses on a task called “Why Santa Claus is not real?” with some creative calculations by students. This seems like a very useful practical maths qualification.

My fourth workshop was all about tech in the classroom and digital resources. An enigmatic retired teacher was totally down with the tech. He took us to Melbourne airport on Google maps and showed us that you can actually see cross-sectional views of the runway with gradient data. We traveled to the pentagon building as well. I was so happy to see him use the Wacom graphics tablet that I use in my own tutoring. He also had some very cool graphing software and some very clever uses of spreadsheets. His workshop alone has filled my head with numerous ideas and I’ll slowly be implementing these with my students.

My fifth and final workshop was about reasoning and problem solving. The teacher showed some innovative ideas on the correct use of language and the idea of problem solving through creative brainstorming and questioning. By applying those techniques she had improved the scores of her set of students very well. What a skill to be able to influence so many students so effectively. By my fifth workshop my brain was overloaded already and I took as much note as I could for teaching KS3 and KS4 material.

Free books. Thank you CGP 🙂

Between the five sessions there was lunch and the odd short break. The highlight of lunch has to be the cake competition with a whole array of wonderful maths themed cakes. I knew two teachers from the Facebook group so I had two large slices of their cakes. I was buzzing on sugar now too.

There were also several stands from suppliers and publishers. As if the day didn’t have enough value already, I then got hold of the brand new A Level maths textbooks from CGP for the new syllabus for free! The books are absolutely invaluable to me and I am one happy bunny now.

The day closed with Mark McCourt on the main stage again and some drinks outside. Working as a tutor can be a lonely affair and no matter how good you think you are doing with your tutoring it is impossible to shake that feeling off that you know you need CPD and could be doing a better job. After 11 years of tutoring, 9 of them without knowing any other tutors I was so relieved to have gotten CPD at this conference. I have attended short training courses before but this was truly on another scale and level. I met many teachers and exchanged ideas from my world of 1-on-1 work with their inspiring work in the classroom. As a tutor one can often feel in the periphery of the education system. I now truly feel connected to the heart of the teaching ecosystem.

It was an intense roller coaster of a day which went very fast and there was so much to absorb. I have returned with tons of goodies, subscriptions, contacts and I’m still processing many things from the day. I now genuinely feel like a better, more rounded tutor and am raring to try new ideas with my students. I’ve also got the maths conference bug, so I will be going to a few more of these now 🙂 I urge all my maths tutor friends to attend future events like these. Thank you La Salle.