Research Based Pedagogic Tasks RBPTs

This has been a long time coming, but I intend to restart sharing thinking about work I’ve been doing in projects around the world! I am part of a Sheffield Hallam, British Council project for the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Pune. The idea is to work with teachers of undergraduate science and maths to develop tasks requiring problem solving skills in settings of genuine benefit. The problem with maths, is that the problems are frequently unrealistic or too simplistic. One of our co-tutors wrote to ask my thoughts on this …

The issue is that teachers of mathematics are so fixed in their need to teach some specific mathematics that all they can ever do, is invent some ‘story’ that fits the mathematics they want to teach. In applied mathematics, the solution is led by the application. The mathematics is not fixed and will keep changing. So the vital issue is to start with a real problem that someone really wants to solve. You may have to accept that the mathematics that ends up being used is not necessarily what you wanted to teach.
Probably the best situation is for mathematicians to find a group of scientists who already have a genuine problem and work with them. The vast majority of the RBPTs created by participants at the workshops would have benefited from much better design and analysis of the data. Claims were being made e.g. of the relationship between certain diseases and certain things found in rivers. This needs good statistics. NOT finding a simple correlation and saying that therefore one is caused by the other. On the same subject, flow rates in water courses generate problems needing differential equations as for examples would traffic management problems.
I saw an RBPT on nano technology. The issue of orders of magnitude was very clear. For example we did an experiment with waterproof sand (yes, seriously). This is grains of sand covered in a polymer coating one nanometere thick. What is the relative size of the sand grain to the polymer? Making serious calculations at the nano level of sizes requires some complex handling of numbers. But again – the application must lead.
Finally Space technology requires sophisticated mechanics and calculus and of course India is a world leader. Differential equations are needed to model rocket speed/time trajectories and escape velocities, so a nice RBPT would be to design a satellite flight path to put it onto successful orbit.
So: (i) wean the mathematicians off starting with their bit of maths and onto finding an interesting problems and (ii) force them (!) to work with scientists who already have the problems and need some help with the maths.

Count On Us Challenge: Congratulations to Kender School!

Kender School in Lewisham are the winners of the Mayor’s Fund for London’s Count On Us Challenge.

Val from the Maths Zone takes on Johnny Ball

Val takes on Johnny Ball!

Very well done to them and very well done to all of the schools who took part. The grand final took place yesterday at City Hall with 13 schools who had won their way through heats and semi finals to compete at solving 24®Game puzzle cards. Each card has four numbers; you can add, subtract, multiply or divide in any combination, but you must use all four numbers to make 24.

It is quite astonishing to see pupils in years 4 and 5 (aged 8 to 10) able to solve these puzzles almost instantaneously. Their teachers certainly can’t, my PGCE students with top maths degrees can’t. So how is it done?

I talked with Bob Sun, inventor of the 24®Game in Easton, Pennsylvania and he gave me a copy of a book by journalist Daniel Coyle called The Talent Code. Coyle examines a series of instances in which exceptional performance is found in different fields and looks at the elements that came together to produce it. A great coach is always included, so teachers, you know you are important! However, the coming together of real desire and serious hard work with lots and lots of practice are the principle elements. In the end, the final few percent are achieved through an intangible element that can be called ‘talent’. But, for sure these kids can beat there teachers because they have worked hard at it.

Now, playing the 24®game is not like memorising your times tables. It involves flexibility of mind. You generate a whole raft of relationships which make up parts of the 24, like looking for 8 and 3 or 6 and 4, or 23 and 1 made up of pairs or triples of the numbers available. So, you are juggling lots of combinations. The outcome is young people who see numbers and are aren’t interested in seeing if they can remember the answer, but recognise the need to fiddle with what they’ve got to unlock routes to the answer. You can’t get more like true mathematical thinking than that in a 9 year old!

So, the Count On Us Challenge provides the desire. Compete for your school, win the prize, get to walk across the top of Tower Bridge. It doesn’t matter, it was a great day out for everyone, but everyone involved was ready to compete because they cared and they’d worked hard at it. Net result, 100s of young people with much better and more flexible number skills than their teachers. That’s good!

All of the 24®Game sets are only available from The Maths Zone. There are class kits, tournament packs, the competition standard one and two digit sets, primer sets for early practice and tougher sets for advanced challenges. 

There will be a Count on Us Challenge next year. So, start practising now. The kids from Kender School are very good. Very good indeed. They will take some beating! (And please don’t think it is a school with any special advantage, not at all, it is a very straightforward urban primary in SE London. They work hard at it and their kids practise and my are they sharp with their number skills. Well done to them.

We have produced a guide to help you run a number challenge tournament in your school or your area. You can use the 24®Game cards as they do in the Count On Us Challenge. If you want a more equally weighted tournament, we also have SuperTMatik, which is a card game from Portugal where they have a National (and World!) championship, but the problems are seeded so you can have pupil’s competing at different levels in the same game. Target Set 3 CMYKFinally there is Target Maths, where the numbers are combined to make a different target each time. Try this one (the target number is in the middle).

So, an in-school tournament to provide the desire, then plenty of opportunities to practice, practice and young people get really good. And then in secondary school what happens? They forget, because they stop practising. What does Andy Murray do before during and after every tournament? He practices hard. That’s why he is so good (and he may just have a bit of that extra few percent too!). It was humbling to see how good the kids from Kender (and indeed all of the other schools) are. Teachers can get all of their kids to that level with enough desire and a lot of practice. Good luck for next year!



© Suntex International Inc, All rights reserved. 24®, 24 Challenge® are trademarks of Suntex


IT supporting kids learning in maths: what is the problem?

I completed my PGCE in 1983 (oh my!) and went to work in a comprehensive school in Corby new town in the East Midlands. (Then it was the largest town in England without a railway station, somewhat depressed by the closure of the largest steelworks in Europe). The walls of my classroom had a large bench running all the way round. On this bench were set out about 8 RM 480Z work stations. For anyone who doesn’t remember, these were competitors to the BBC Micro. When I taught transformational geometry, I could pause in the lesson and get my students to gather round the computers and engage with an activity I set up for them where they would create a shape and transform it using LOGO. They would make hypotheses and test them, seeing the result immediately, visually, dynamically.

I have recently observed a number of lessons on transformational geometry in London comprehensives. Despite every classroom being fully equipped with a networked computer and an interactive whiteboard and in every case, the teacher having been trained within the last year on using GeoGebra to teach transformational geometry, not one single diagram moved at all in any of the lessons. Students were shown object and image and asked what transformation connected them. An agreement was reached (often with much disagreement and uncertainty) and that would be that. There was no way that anyone could validate the agreement or see the transformation enacted. This is the traditional teaching method of ‘proof by teacher says’ or its slightly more inclusive counterpart ‘proof by agreement’. Now, just in case anyone who was there in the room with me can recognise themselves, I should share that everything else about all of those lessons was really good, sometimes quite outstanding. It is simply that giving kids experience of the mathematics, rather than showing them how it works, seems to be such a long way from conventional school practice, that even with everything else in place, teachers find it hard to achieve. Yet in 1983, it was just what you did and we had reliable technological tools ready in the classroom to support it.

I have had lengthy discussions about technology in the classroom with colleagues in teacher education and most recently I have heard about the various classroom manager systems that are being developed by the hardware companies and the IWB people. The essential premise is that you connect to handheld devices that the students have. The screens of their devices are available in thumbnail format on the teacher machine and hence the classroom screen (and able to be enlarged to show the whole class the work of an individual). The software has polling and analysis, so questions and messages can be sent and answers received and engaged with. With this level of technology available, it will again be possible to do what I was happily doing in 1983, interrupting an ordinary lesson in an ordinary classroom to engage with an idea dynamically using technology and seeing what the students are doing (I wandered round and looked at the screens and if I saw something interesting, I got the others to come over and see). At the moment, teachers feel they have to book the computer room to achieve this effect and we all know how unlikely/impossible that is.

But it is a compelling thought. Now, the teacher can manage the dialogue, setting a task, students can engage with the software and discuss the issues. When ideas emerge these can be shared with the whole class. A real dialogic engagement. So, what’s stopping us? Wheel the trolley of laptops in and they will connect seemlessly to the network with no fuss and then it’s OK? Of, course it doesn’t/won’t. Not least because controlling dynamic software from a track pad is a nightmare, but have you ever made a half class set of Laptops connect to a network? So, bring in the set of iPads the school just massively invested in. Agh. No manager software and as yet only a very cut down version of GeoGebra.

The Holy Grail is that everyone turns their smart phones on and launches the iOS or Android app they need, and we get some generic tablets for those that don’t have smart phones and these all connect. Even then we would need better software (unless you invest £30 a head for TI-nspire on iOS which is really good). I hope to get delivery of a trial set of HP Prime wireless graphing calculators very soon. Naturally, they do everything that that I have said. The massive difference is that they have an auto detecting dongle (the same as the ones that make wireless keyboards work). No installation, no logging in, if the device is in the room, the screen appears on the teacher machine. People say: ‘what’s the point of graphing calculators these days?’ I say: it is a piece of bespoke hardware with an optimised interface for the range of maths functions you need, with really well developed and well thought out maths software. Moreover, compared to iPads they are really cheap. They are small, easy to carry and importantly easy to charge. You just have to be able to grab the box on your way into lesson and hand them out the same as you would hand out rulers and compasses and they just work when you turn them on. Only then can we get back to 1983 and have technology seemlessly integrated into ordinary lessons in ordinary classrooms. Only now we’ve got rather classier software to play with.

I would like to work with anyone who is using any comparable kit that can achieve the same effect. I would be delighted to set up a research project where we can examine the actual classroom use of these technologies. I would be keen to hear from schools who think that this sort of kit will solve the problem of static teaching and would think they could use such technology all the time (not just special occasions). I would happily support such work with loan equipment and support materials. Contact me (

Apart from the dodgy hairdos and the rusty cars, 1983 had things going for it!

Financial Education: How does that work?

From September 2014 it will be compulsory for schools to teach financial education. This will be built in to the mathematics and the citizenship curricula. See this article from the Daily Telegraph. Notice the picture of school life that they choose to illustrate the article with. This is how students learn; in rows at individual desks, looking seriously bored! The trouble is that a good proportion of the materials available for ‘financial education’ in schools is perfect for this scenario. Standard worksheet based discussion and practice activities are the norm and work in the same way that makes PSHE such a disappointing subject, taught by non-specialists, with no exam, it is hard to see the purpose when you are in school.

What makes these important things come alive is getting students into the setting. They have to care about the issue in order to engage with the ideas. I have seen fantastic drugs education sessions where former users and dealers have come in and talked to teenagers about their experience and where they are now. It is edgy, but it is real and they certainly listen!

Finance is tricky. Kids in school rarely have any real need to save with interest and if they have a bank account, their main worry is losing their cash. Certainly, they cannot borrow beyond their means or need to budget in a life changing way. Some, certainly, have life experiences that may necessitate any or all of these, but they are a small albeit important minority.

We have been working in financial education for over a decade. As a development of the Number Partners project which I was director of for many years, we designed a series of large format board games designed to set up scenarios in which players have to make important financial decisions: how to invest a small amount of capital, to generate profits to reinvest. Managing money between cash and different bank accounts, to enable purchasing but retaining security. Budgetting for a holiday and managing exchange rates. Making the life transition from school to work, while meeting your life goals.

The power of a board game is that the social setting frames the decision making. You are playing with real people who you have to engage with, framed by the settings of the games. The games were trialled in very ordinary schools, in classrooms with groups of students and have been widely used in different settings since. The effect is impressive. Students talk to each other about their financial decision making, developing strategies to succeed in that setting. Naturally, winning strategies involve good financial decision making.

We set up a web site to showcase the games. So see what you think. All of the games have teacher guides with extra materials and school use ideas. Please get back to us with your questions and thoughts. But, when you plan to deliver financial education this September, get your students into a setting in which they care. Only then will they be able to make decisions in a way that matters to them.

EAL in Maths? Problem Solved!

Where we were working in South East London, a number of students would arrive in England for the first time in the middle of secondary school. They would have very little English language and would try to get into local secondary schools. The schools would turn them away because they assumed that these students would end up with poor grades and compromise their exam statistics. So, a unit was set up to support these students make the transition to school. I got together with Gwyn Jones to produce a course designed to teach the mathematics content of GCSE with the minimum of language, but developing the key technical vocabulary of maths and of school while they learnt. The materials were supported by online interactives to see the maths dynamically and practice the ideas in an open format. There was a very low language pre-test, so that the student could show what they already knew, a tracker sheet to choose the maths they now needed to work on, a large collection of activity sheets to develop the maths and a post test with the same language demands of a normal maths test to show the schools how good they were.

In the very first group of students to use the first version of materials there was a student who had just arrived from East Africa. He had been rejected by every school in the borough. He took the pre-test and got 100%. He worked on the advanced materials and did the same on the post test. He took his work as a portfolio back to the schools and immediately found a place. Within 18 months he had an A* in GCSE maths.

We are proud to announce that we have now redesigned and updated this course and made it available to schools. Called Access to Mathematics it comes as one of our course boxes (like our well known gifted and talented courses; Wondermaths and Illuminate). There is a comprehensive teacher guide with notes on running the course. Ten copies of the comprehensive student book (120 pages) and access to the online interactives, test, answers, etc. in the Access to Mathematics web site. Priced at £195 this gives access to mathematics for all of your students for whom English is an Additional Language from those who have just arrived with no English to those who appear to have conversational English, but cannot access or succeed at maths in lessons.

Everything is described diagrammatically, putting the maths into a visual structure. Two colours are used to emphasise the structure and the maths is practised through this structure, gradually peeling it away to leave the formal symbolic maths. The course worked well supervised by non-specialist teachers as it is designed largely for self-teaching. However, with access to a specialist teacher, the materials could be used for a whole range of learners where reading and language demands of any sort are an issue.

Once you have the box, further copies of the students books are available in packs of 10 priced at £45. So, you can use them as a standard class text if you want. The overall content is covers about 90% of a higher level GCSE.

We are very proud of this publication. We have so often seen excellent mathematicians languishing in low achieving sets simply because they are still learning English and find accessing conventional books difficult. Now, they can quietly and quickly show everyone how much they know and can do, while learning the essential school language that they need.


Illuminate: Gifted and Talented at Key Stage 3 School Reviews

This is a shameless commercial post because I am really excited that schools who have bought our Illuminate Gifted and Talented Course for key stage 3 have posted on-line reviews on the National STEM centre web site. Obviously I would only be saying this if they like it, but they really like it a lot and that is really exciting.

See here:

Our aim was to produce a course in mathematics, so that school students had the opportunity to see what Maths is really all about. It is full of puzzles and games and tricky things to think about. But it takes them to the next level by unpicking fundamental ideas notably proof and isomorphism and giving students an incite. Maths gives a way of definitively saying how we know what we know. We use Pythagoras Theorem to unpick the idea of proof. From the essential structuring idea that sets up the proof to the language needed to be clear and the sequencing of the statements to construct the complete argument. It is thrilling that schools are reporting that students are able and interested to work on this. It is hard, but interesting things are, but students are game to carry on. Then we compare cyclic and Klein groups with isometries and modulo arithmetic. I cannot think there is anything more wonderful for the beginning mathematician to see that we can show that two complete areas of operation, so apparently dissimilar as arithmetic of clocks and transformational geometry have exactly the same underlying structure and hence, if we know something about one, we necessarily know the same thing about the other. That, to me is what maths is really all about. The mechanical processes that students learn for their GCSE and A Levels give no insight into this amazing world.

So, well done to those schools for being brave enough to work this way and really well done to the students who are becoming serious young mathematicians. Clearly we would be delighted for you to try it too. Just ask for some trial materials of the Illuminate course.

Also, come to ATM sessions and meet Danny Brown. Danny is the head of maths at the Greenwich Free School and he is getting his kids working on deep mathematical ideas all the time. Danny has presented regularly to ATM London Branch and has a web site of the amazing stuff he does. I persuaded Danny to get this out in book form and the first volume, on Number, is nearly ready, so look out for that.

What is this maths that we are teaching?

It is with envy that some mathematics educators in England look to our colleagues in the Netherlands where the Freudenthal institute has generated a rich, coherent research debate which has been widely implemented in schools. Realistic Mathematics Education offered the antidote to the formalism of the New Maths based on Hans Freudethal’s view that mathematics was not pre-formed. He said; “… the global structure of mathematics to be taught should be understood: it is not a rigid skeleton, but it rises and perishes with the mathematics that develops in the learning process. Is it not the same with the adult mathematician’s mathematics?” So it is very sad to hear that the Commission for Examinations in the Netherlands is considering banning graphing calculators from public examinations. What is it that a calculator does that could be damaging to mathematics developing in the learning process? A machine can do only what a machine can do. If mathematicians continue to fulfill an important role, then clearly they must be able to things that machines cannot do. In his 2001 novel, Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture, Doxiadis’ eponymous mathematician dismisses any process a machine could do as ‘shopping maths’. That of course includes anything a computer algebra system (CAS) could do.

So, learners of Freudenthal’s mathematics should have access to the tools to do the shopping maths, to free up the thinking space to engage with real mathematics; solving problems, generating conjectures, developing proof. These are the art of mathematics, not the mechanical grind. Godfrey Hardy acted as the foil to Ramanujan’s genius, but in the ‘apology’ he makes clear how well he understood that Ramajan’s ability for finding extraordinary new relationships that only he could see, was the real mathematical gift. Getting it into a publishable state was the routine work for afterwards.

The excellent Project Euler takes as it’s premise that mathematicians will have access to a high level programming language (Python, which naturally has a powerful CAS) to engage with problems in number theory. The wonderfully named designed for potential International Maths Olympiad candidates has a whole section of problem solving requiring programming (and hence CAS) available.

Having a machine capable of high level mathematics available in a public examination in mathematics forces examiners to take a considered view of what the maths is that they are examining. It prevents them from asking students to replicate what machines can do and focuses their thinking on the maths that matters. The maths that Hans Freudenthal was so keen to preserve in the Netherlands, against the onslaught of formalism.

This sad situation was brought to my attention through the English translation of a response by Erik Korthof to an advert for the new HP Prime graphing calculator. He suggests that the absence of graphing calculators in the past allowed the construction of ‘proper exams’. The task of mathematics education should not be to make the lives of examiners easy. Clearly, asking a student to complete a mechanical task that would be simply done by a machine is very simple. To construct a question knowing that the student has access to such a machine is hard. Specifically so, because the question must demand genuine mathematical thinking and that puts great demands on examiners. In the UK, the most progressive mathematics education project (MEI) for A Level students (age 18) have just had their first cohort complete an examination module with a CAS calculator available. The result is thoughtful, highly mathematical questions of exactly the type University maths courses are excited to see. The link will take you to their answer to Erik Korthof’s question: “Is secondary education served with a Computer Algebra System?”. Clearly they answer a resounding yes and MEI are major players in the future of maths education in England.

As I’ve said elsewhere the existence of tools like HP Prime which allow access to powerful mathematical visualization and calculation tools in the classroom liberates students from the mechanical processes that prevent them thinking deeply about the mathematics. Certainly there will be many lessons where the calculators are put firmly away and students will learn and practice these mechanical processes, like drawing graphs and manipulating algebra, not only because they need to see how they work, but also to give them a better feel for the outcomes. Happily teachers are sophisticated enough to manage this. They can also find secure ways to use exam modes to ensure devices adhere to local regulations. Schools are expert in this. These logistical issues should not be used as an excuse for not allowing students the tools that professionals have access to and reducing what is called maths in schools to a collection of mechanical processes. Especially not from the birthplace of RME and the beautiful, powerful view of mathematics presented to the world by Hans Freudenthal.

HP Prime The New Future

HP_prime_front_pictureHP Prime will be launched ready for September and the new school year. Have a look at the teaser YouTube HP released to show you what it looks like. Last week I had one in my hands at a launch workshop in Prague led by GT Springer the lead designer. GT has been central to most of the major innovations in graphing calculator design and he has put all of that experience into a genuinely wonderful new device. Read the interview GT gave to the US tech blog Cemetech. First impressions matter to schools who want to show the smart new kit they are buying and to students who want something really flash in an era where new tech does indeed look good. It is interesting that after a stunned response at the NCTM conference in Colorado there has been a lot of buzz around tech sites like Slashgear and Ubergizmo. Well that’s good, because if the tech savvy think it’s worth talking about then bright young teachers and their equally bright students will take a look.

Being an old fogey myself, all I can say is that it looks very smart indeed,with a brushed aluminium front and a smooth bright screen. The colour is bright and very sharp with extremely clear detail and you just have to keep reminding your self that it is a touch screen and that you can drag and move objects and navigate drop down menus. The touch is smooth and very accurate. Younger folk than me will do this instinctively, I’m sure that they will be wondering how it could be done any other way. It is very well made and feels sleek and smooth all round. It is about 300g which feel sufficiently heavy to be solid but easy to hold and it balances really nicely in tho hands with your thumbs over the Home screen and the CAS button. You really feel you are holding a classy piece of kit. So, part one of the battle is won, savvy young people will want one and schools will be proud to show off that they bought them. So, what does it do?

The biggest headline is: wireless connectivity. Files can be transferred via the connectivity software. However, if you plug a small USB dongle (which you purchase seperately) into the top of the PRIME, it will immediately be recognised on the computer, notably the teacher’s computer in class. Files and settings can then be transferred wirelessly. (Only from PRIME to PC not from PRIME to PRIME). More than that, the PRIME screen can be shown on the teacher’s screen. Then their will be class polling functions allowing the teacher to set a question from her computer and students to offer responses from their PRIMES with the results shown in table and chart form. Just like the polling systems many schools are getting which only do this. That will be just the start of what can be done. The critical point is that this a plug-and-play system. No set up, which is a critical factor for classroom use.

The software itself initially looks like an up-rated version of the HP39gII, which it is, so you will find all of the Apps in the HP39gII working exactly the same. So, anyone who has used a HP39gII will get started immediately. However, there are three new Apps which make a big difference. There is a mathematical spreadsheet, a dynamic geometry system and the advanced grapher. Together these represent a major advance in providing an space to explore mathematical ideas. These tie together with the big pause for breath moment. The CAS button.There is no CAS/non-CAS option. A mathematical machine must speak algebra and this one does. There are two home screens; a CAS screen which deals with exact objects and the traditional home screen which deals with approximate objects. The Apps can use the last object from each of these screens and the choice is always there; CAS screen or Home screen. This recognition of the fundamental pure/applied, exact/approximate distinctions is central to an underlying philosophy which has the potential to transform the way we think about exploring mathematics. For me, this is the thing that will determine future research into maths education technology. The spreadsheet, the dynamic geometry and the advanced grapher can all take CAS and non-CAS statements and allow users to explore the results. Just to get a feeling for what this means, have a look at GT’s handouts from the NCTM conference.

Now the sad thing is that exam boards are scared of CAS and we look forward to a future where CAS systems will transform maths exams by getting beyond procedural questions and towards mathematical problem solving. Well done to MEI for getting an A-level module approved allowing CAS and look to Germany and Australia for examples where CAS is embraced. But in the UK CAS is not allowed. Well, no, CAS is not allowed in public maths exams for which any calculator IS allowed. So, it is quite clear that this machine has a CAS system, so could you use it in an exam? To be sure the answer will be yes, the machine includes a comprehensive exam mode. A menu system allows a vast range of features to be turned on or off, CAS is one of the, but suppose a particular exam disallowed solver apps, they can be turned off too. The system is password protected and the user will simply be greeted with a little round exclamation mark if they try to access or disallowed function or suppressed apps will simply be missing from the menu. For school use, the teachers sets the settings they want e.g. turn off the CAS, creates a password and then beams this setting to all of the connected PRIMES, wirelessly. A series of bright LEDS light up in the same sequence while exam mode is engaged. It is immediately clear to the exam secretary that the machine has only those facilities allowed in exams. In discussion with teachers, it became clear that this feature sets up the possibility to allow younger learners to get started with the machine in a simplified mode and actually presented exciting pedagogic possibilities too.

The exams battle is a big one and many schools still think you cannot use any graphing calculator in a maths exam, so we will need to talk with exam boards and the JCQ to make sure the message is clear enough: you can use this machine in a maths exam and without disabling it as an amazing teaching tool.

I’ve always been a fan of calculators as a learning tool. I’ve said elsewhere that tablets are exciting, but you don’t work and think like that, you need different technological tools for different functions and the resilience of the calculator as a form factor is remarkable  I think for this reason. It’s a highly portable, personal thinking space. I am really excited about PRIME because it has all of the maths you could possibly want with an intuitive touch driven interface, wireless connectivity to support proper classroom dialogue in a package that everyone will want to own.

Please get in touch with me if you see the video and want to be part of early development to get really exciting maths back into our classrooms. I would be delighted to talk to you about the support I can offer.

Graphing Calculator Workshops

I’ve had a really nice time doing a round of workshops for teachers and for PGCE and GTP students on handheld technology. I’ve always thought that ICT provides opportunities for teachers to invent interesting activities that give students deep insights into how maths works. It is interesting that today, pupil’s in primary schools are no longer to be allowed to be examined in their ability to solve problems with numbers harder than those they could handle by written or mental methods. Calculators are banned. Bizarely, the minister responsible justified this move in terms of the need to be able to handle numbers because maths “influences all spheres of our daily lives”. This maths is routinely done by engineers and scientists who would never stoop to using a calculator or indeed a computer to support their number work. The failure to get the sums right in the recent Virgin trains debacle was presumably caused by over use of calculators, except that the culprits will have been educated in an era when they did have get enough number work. An era that clearly never was.

I start with the neat teacherly trick of playing ‘guess the function‘ here the participants see a calculators giving values of f(x) for their values of x, letting them choose to get a feeling for the variation. I only show them a graph, when they have already formed a reasonable view, then watching as they focus on the details. The first thing is to realise that experienced teachers and well qualified trainees struggle to see a quadratic just form a small table of values. No doubt because the drill and practice pedagogy the present government is so enamored with means many will have only ever encountered a quadratic already knowing that was what the five points they were given to plot would show. But it is good to get a feeling for things and they see this. So, playing the game on the handheld with their partners strengthens the insights and makes them more flexible.

It turns out that lots of schools are buying sets of iPads, demonstration that there is plenty of money around. But the maths software available for iPads isn’t a patch on any graphing calculator and the storage, security and battery issues for anything you have to recharge means they will be no more reliable than laptops. In one group of 25 trainee teachers after about 4 weeks in schools only one had seen any handheld machines possible to use in ordinary classrooms. That was a school where every student carried a laptop with them at all times. It only came out later that in all this time they had not been used even one single time in maths lessons. A set of 15 HP39gIIs stored in a bag in the maths office with a few spare batteries and you just pick them up on your way in to class. I make the case that it is the teacher who prevents the use of technology. That is a bit harsh. Mostly it’s the technology. So use something which is no more expensive than a couple of textbooks and is almost certain to work.

Then we get back to seeing the resources we have as sites to conjour up really clever ways in to mathematical ideas. That’s what makes our job fun. Look at bag of dice, counters, centicubes and we should always be saying, OK what could I do with those that encapsulates a mathematical idea. A graphing calculator is just the same, it’s something we can use to give students deeper insights. It is in fact a calculator, and the scientists and engineers of the future should certainly learn to use it to support their number work, their algebra, whatever, so they can focus their brain power on being brilliant with the science and the engineering. But also it’s a pedagogic device. A clever piece of kit for clever teachers to do what is most creative about our jobs. Something that supports kids doing clever thinking.