Ma, Pa Kettle and Tom Lehrer do mathematics

I just love these two videos. They show just why so many people have problems with mathematics. In particular it is the way that teachers have taught pupils “quick fix” solutions and not explained why it works.

Watch the videos and then reflect on why it is that so  many people hated mathematics at school. I find, as a mathematics consultant, that the idea of “ways to do it” just causes confusion that may very well last a lifetime.

The answer, I feel, is explanation. Tell the children why it works and let them UNDERSTAND it! Otherwise we will get perfectly good explanations for why 13-7=5 or 14 X 5= 25 (because of course 4X5 =20 and we add the 5 1’s !).

A colleague of mine is always saying that the moment we get children onto division by introducing the “bus stop” algorithm is the beginning of many children’s problems… we start from the biggest number and then what’s left becomes the larger number of the next column to the right…if you are getting confused by my explanation then think how children must feel or try to remember back to your own school days and how the mist came down and how you couldn’t wait to drop mathematics forever!

I have also added two examples of children’s mathematics answers which I feel shows the sheer panic that getting an answer to something you just don’t understand can bring you to. Without understanding we will continue to see mistakes in maths which the videos and pictures show.

Digital Preservation… the questions

I enjoyed watching this video for a number of reasons.

The first reason was that it highlighted a problem to me that I hadn’t really thought about before, the problem of what we should preserve of the mass of digital information that is available in our world today.

The second reason was that it showed just how much the U.S. Library of Congress has advanced in looking at the fact that we have now entered a digital age and that the collection and preservation of digital information is a huge part of their reason for existence and, as far as I can see they are doing it very well.

The third reason was the fact that, in the video, you will see pupils from Arlington Virginia who,as the video explains, are the teenagers of today who can truly be called “Digital Natives” and who are part of the thinking about what we need to preserve the world’s stock of digital information for their future and their children’s future.The video asks big questions of these digital natives and pays them the respect of listening and broadcasting their views.I first came across the video on a website that I follow called “Weare the” and the actual site address is:

more about “ – Home“, posted with vodpod

When the technology lets you down

As anyone who reads this blog will know, I am a great proponent of new technology and its potential for education. I am though, like everybody else a victim of when the technology lets you down.

I am a consultant in Primary Mathematics and have to give presentations as a part of my job. I don’t know how many times I have had a wonderful Powerpoint available only to see that it doesn’t load or that the link to some website or other doesn’t happen and I stand there making apologies along the lines of “the technology lets you down!”

Yesterday was another example of this. I was looking up a brilliant list of resources called “The Clearinghouse” from Century 21, an organisation that I belong to that is promoting the use of web 2.0 technology.

I came across a really interesting search application called Yolink. I went to the Yolink site and watched the videos and was really impressed by what the application could do. It could take your normal Google Search and then scan through the results for links to particular words. It could do the same for text and the results could be saved or shared.

It seemed to make searching much better and as they said in the video it meant that you could go from “search” to “find”. This really got me excited and I foresaw a blog entry coming up on the power of Yolink.

I found that there was a Mozilla Firefox application that I could download and I dutifully did. I could hardly wait to do my first search and then quickly scan for word matches and then text matches. I tried but it didn’t quite work.

I decided, since there was a “Google Chrome” version that I would download Chrome and see if this worked better. This was duly done and , no, it did not appear to work a lot better. I tried a version for Internet Explorer and it didn’t seem to work with the efficiency that the young lady in the video had promised.

I am not discouraged though, because I am sure that the programmers will eventually sort out the problems and this is a potentially powerful application. But it did bring to mind that technology can let you down at times and that it does not have all the answers. It has great potential and there are programs and applications coming out all the time that are widening its ability to develop our learning.

But there will always be the power cut, the blown light bulb in your projector, the internet crash and the little bug that sits in the program that seems to wait until you use it. It can be very frustrating, it can make you feel like screaming.. but stick with it even when your students are laughing at your ridiculous attempts to rescue yourself from this technological hell and realise that it’ll improve in time and it’s worth it in the end!

Flickr: The Commons

I have sung the praises of Twitter on numerous occasions to those who just see it is a means of passing messages. As I have said previously in this blog most of my leads to really interesting sites have come from Twitter and this morning was no exception.

I was given a link to something called “Flickr: The Commons” This turned out to be an amazing site that contained many of the photos held as a public resource from many countries and organisations throughout the world.

It started when Flickr (The Yahoo run photo sharing site) started its first connection with a site on January 16th 2008. The site concerned was nothing less than the Library of Congress! It has since added numbers of sites with photographs that have “commons” usage, i.e. that are available for use and distribution with any known copyright.

The idea behind “The Commons” was not just to allow access to the photos but to actively add information and links to them so that they can act as a resource for everyone.

I decided to do a search on “Stoke Newington”   in London which is where I happen to have been born and raised. There was only one photograph… strangely from the Library of Congress… but it was a fascinating one….

The  photograph is the funeral in Stoke Newington of General  William Booth, who was the founder of The Salvation Army. It turned out when looking on the site at that he was buried at Abney Park Cemetery in StokeNewington, not very far from the actual place that I was born. There was also a photograph uploaded by someone of his  grave!

I did a Google search and discovered details about Abney Park Cemetery which was really interesting in that there are a number of famous personalities from music hall artists to Joanna Vassa, daughter of the black author and abolitionist Olaudah Equiano buried there. For further details see 

My journey into learning about all this came from one link in one Tweet! I think that this shows the power of Twitter as well as the power of the internet as a resource for learning. Some of you reading this may have more details or photographs that you can add to the Flickr: Commons site about General Booth!

The Tiny Mouse

I belong to a really good organisation involved in Primary computer education called Ictopus Every month I receive a new e-newsletter which usually has a theme. This month it is related to health education.

The start of the newsletter though was different from the monthly theme and was all about a little girl’s problems in using a computer program teaching her about time because of the physical size of the mouse! Below is the entry in the newsletter:

Dawn’s Small Mouse

Our local library has a computer in the children’s section, which invariably attracts

more attention than the books. It has about 30 programs on it, designed to help

young children with various disciplines, including ICT. Some of the programs

require the children to use drag and drop techniques, for example, or clicking in

precise places.

Dawn enjoys learning time with Percy (Percy Learns

Time available from Neptune Software

hard to control. For a start, the mouse pointer moved

far too fast for her to be able to make any precise

movements. She had to move the mouse left, right,

left, right, forwards and backwards, gradually getting

closer to what she was aiming for but always

overshooting. It was very frustrating. Then when the

pointer was finally in the right place, she couldn’t just

click like adults can because of the size of the mouse.

Her finger was nowhere near the button, and in

reaching for it, she just pushed the mouse and the

pointer went whizzing off again. It was very

frustrating, because she found using the mouse much

harder than telling the time, which was supposed to

be the purpose of the exercise.

We managed to solve both problems. We set up her own account on our Windows

computer at home, in which we’ve slowed the mouse pointer down, and we bought

her a small mouse which fits under her hand. In no time at all she was using the

mouse with confidence, and with a bit of practice on it, she found she was more

competent on the library mouse too. We asked them to consider replacing their

mouse, which they did – with an even bigger one!

Now this got me thinking about a number of things…. do we actually think about the logistics of use when we get our children onto a computer? I was also interested if there were other designs of computer mouse that could be bought for home or school use that would help the children’s motor skills as well as I.C.T. awareness and development.

Doing the inevitable Google Search I came across a really good mouse called  “The Tiny Mouse” which I then looked up on Amazon.

This mouse is small enough for a little child to use but has the added advantage of having very clear colour buttons for left and right use.

I have to admit that I was impressed by the design and would certainly think that it would be something that educators as well as parents can think about when they seek to get technology use by very young children (which I personally think is a very good thing in the development of our digital citizens of the future).

I would welcome your comments and opinion on this.










Why teaching is not like making motorcars

Yet another short but brilliant video by Sir Ken Robinson. He says it all very succinctly. Those who follow this blog will know that I have already saved two Ken Robinson videos, one from a TED Talk and another, slightly longer from his talk at NYSCATE in 2009.I would strongly recommend that you try and see the longer videos if you have been moved or interested by his words in this short video. I would also try and get hold of his book “The Element” which is one of the best books on education that I have read in a very long time.I loved the analogy he uses of children to plants and the statement he makes about the best teachers being those who provide the environment for growth. Perhaps the more we think of children as plants that need to be nurtured and less as things (like motor cars) to be produced for future use the better we might become in our quest to create an education system that will really allow our children to fulfil their true potential (in whatever field that may happen to be).I was glad that he mentioned the pressures that we put our children under with constant testing and exams.. he is so right…. no education system should create such tension that our children feel ill and sometimes commit suicide… this must be stopped!

Microsoft Pivot

I have just seen another fascinating video from TED 2010. Dr. Gary Flake, who is Director of Microsoft Live Labs gives a demonstration of Pivot,a groundbreaking program that looks at the sea of data as an opportunity to look for patterns.

I found this as mindblowing as I found Pranav Mistry’s talk on “Sixth Sense” technology (which I have written about in an earlier post). The interesting thing is that Flake states on Microsoft’s site that this kind of technology would not have been possible just a few years ago.

Like Sixth Sense it uses technology to look at the world in a different way. I can only look forward to the many changes that are ahead for us with the pioneering work of M.I.T. and Microsoft and the many other centres for research in the U.S. and around the world. Who knows what might be demonstrated at TED 2011?

Scratch from scratch

As I said in my last post I have been fortunate enough to have a day with a group of Year 6 children when I can have unlimited use for a day of the school’s well equipped I.T. suite.

After a lot of thought I decided that I would try “Scratch” the brilliant post Logo program that was developed at the Media Lab at M.I.T.

From the very first time that I came across it I saw that it was a worthy successor to Logo and follows the path that had been started many years ago at M.I.T. by the great Seymour Papert.

The mixture of programming made simple (with slot in instructions) and the link to animation, sound and computer art was really taking the ideas that Papert put forward into the 21st century. I could see why so many children (and a hell of a lot of adults) were impressed by it and were producing such wonderful animations.

But where it really came into the 21st century was the linking of all the power of the program with the facility to upload content and have content changed from participants throughout the world. This is truly a social media environment which links creativity to learning “powerful ideas” (to use Papert’s phrase from a book he wrote many years ago.)

This morning, rising early and getting onto the internet just after breakfast, I thought that I’d do an initial investigation into how to go about leading the children into the wonders of Scratch.

I did the inevitable Google search and found that there was a site called ( ) which had a number of online video tutorials.

I went, as you would, to lesson 1 and found that this literally was an introduction to Scratch from scratch! I was impressed with the building up of skills and it reminded me of a concept that I had read about in John Mighton’s book about “Jump Math” of the building up of skills like a wall, bit by bit, that allows children to gain ownership and mastery (just like the apprentices of old who picked up skills from a master one bit at a time).

I started to make Scratch the cat move forward and then back… then in the next lesson I learnt how to repeat an action and then use the Green Flag to start it. I learnt how powerful it all was by experimenting bit by bit.

Even though I am a bit long in the tooth, I found that I learnt easily this way and it made me wonder why we sometimes rush through difficult concepts, particularly in mathematics, without allowing children to have the building blocks that allow them to have ownership of it (as Mighton says in his book).

My first session is planned then, we will log into and will let the children discover the nuts and bolts of the program. When they build up confidence (which I believe they can do quite speedily) then I will let them loose on drawing their own sprites, downloading music and hopefully collaborating with each other in the creative process. I really feel that they will love the day and get a lot out of it… but they will get the most out of it if they start from scratch and build up their confidence and skills!

A special day from Scratch

I have been given a real opportunity. Yesterday, the Deputy Head of a school I work in came along and asked me for a “favour”. As soon as I hear that word I usually think that I will be doing some task that I would rather not do but which ticks a box (of the many that need to be ticked), for the school.

“We  are having most of our Year 6’s going on a school trip to The Isle of Wight” she said, “but we are trying to do some ‘out of the box’ activities for those who are left. There would be about twenty of them and you can have free run of the computer suite for your day!”

Well, this was a real opportunity for me.The chance to actually practice what I have been preaching at the school (and others) for a long time now. I would have the chance to let these twenty children have free use of a computer suite for a whole day!

Now I know that there are some of you out there who will be smirking somewhat at this statement. You may teach in schools where every child has a laptop or access to a mobile device. This is not the case in any of the schools in the area that I work in. I therefore looked upon this as a chance to prove a point, if only in a very small way. The “digital natives” will have their day!

My mind started racing as to what I could do with them and all those P.C.’s for that one school day. As a Primary Mathematics consultant I knew that it had to have a mathematical element to it but I dismissed my initial idea of a research project in to the history and development of mathematics as being something that I would find exciting but that they might not.

I had to think of a “hook” that would give the children something to really get into. My next idea was “money”. I am currently working with a few schools in our area on a project called “What Money Means” which is a cross-curricular look at the impact of money in our lives. I thought about doing a project on money, how it came about, how it is used and misused and what it looks like all around the world with different currencies and how one currency can be converted into another.

But again, I felt that this might not really excite all  of the children and I therefore had to go back to the drawing board to find a project that would really inspire, be enjoyable and have some mathematics in it.

Whilst walking my dogs in the nearby woods I had a brainwave (it doesn’t happen all that often!). I remembered “Scratch”.

Scratch is a brilliant concept. It has taken the ideas of Logo put forward many years ago by the great Seymour Papert about children learning about mathematics and programing computers by doing a deceptively simple but powerful program that directs a small sprite (in Logo called a “Turtle”) around a screen and creating shapes using a pen-drawing device.

Scratch has taken the concept developed at the M.I.T. Media Lab a major step forward. You can still program but now you can use simple devices to allow you to do so of boxes that interlink and allow powerful effects. You can use any sprite that you want… on the initial screen is “Scratch” the Cat, who you can make walk around the screen or you can add sound, a background (that you can import) or indeed you can draw your own sprite.

If this is all that Scratch could do it would be a very powerful program indeed. But Mitchel Resnick and his team at the Media Lab at M.I.T. have also taken into consideration the power of social interaction which we now have in our world. On the Scratch site you will see literally thousands of Scratch animations that have been created by children all over the world. These have been uploaded to Scratch and are useable or changeable by other children.

There have been Scratch conferences and “Scratch Days” held all over the world. It is truly an exciting program that I feel will really excite the children I will be working with on May 19th.

So I now have my central idea… we will be starting from Scratch and seeing what the children can develop in just one day. In the process they will learn about programming, mathematical concepts of angle, direction, co-ordinates and scale. Most importantly they will have great fun and I believe that I may just prove my point about the power of new technology to enhance children’s learning. I will of course write a blog entry about our Scratch Day after May 19th.

Making connections: trying to understand other people’s lives and cultures

I feel that the power of the internet to bring people together is immense. When I look back over the years that I have been teaching I know that twenty years back there was no real possibility of communicating with the school down the road no mind being able to talk and see children from across a town, a state or county, a country or indeed anywhere in the world!

I have written in an earlier post about my enthusiasm for the “Flat Classroom Project” which is seeking to bring together pupils from around the world to collaborate with each other and also, very importantly to try and understand each other.

This week I came across two excellent examples of this.The video is a Skype communication between children from a Jewish school and children from a Muslim school in the United States.In it you will see the fact that the children are making an attempt to understand each other’s way of life and gain an appreciation and respect for each other.

In a podcast from the BBC in their series “School Reports” we hear children from a school in Bristol, S.W. England talking to children from Kabul, capital of war-torn Afghanistan.It is a brilliant example of children trying to understand each other’s lives. It is very moving in parts because you can begin to hear how much of an impact the dangers faced in just trying to go to school are for the children in Bristol who certainly take their schooling for granted.It can be accessed on:

Both the video and the podcast show the immense power that the internet has given us as educators to really begin to make an impact on our children’s understanding of the world. I know that the internet has a lot of detractors and that it harbours many many dangers for children, but it also has the chance to bring them together as “world citizens” and begin to break down age-old barriers that we humans have erected over centuries of mistrust and misunderstanding.

more about “Around the World with 80 Schools“, posted with vodpod

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