Using calculators

Posted in Uncategorized by icttalk on March 23, 2018

The debate surfaced again on Breakfast TV this morning and seems not to have developed in 40 years. As only something of a simplification, the moment you open your mouth you are either a Luddite or someone who cannot countenance ever doing a calculation mentally again. There seems to be an inability to accept that there are people who see this technology as neither vital to modern life nor something that will dumb down mathematics. There really are people who when carrying one will use it and when not will calculate using other means.

Enough of the perceived extremes. In my diagram below I set out three types of calculation. We will usually work mentally first and, failing that, move to pencil and paper and then on to a calculator.

Notice the overlaps where a user is not sure which route to go. An ambition must be to move these to the right where possible.

The calculator also reinforces the need for other mathematical skills such as estimation and approximation. Without these the calculator does not guarantee accuracy. They are essential checking tools.

In the past I’ve used calculators as a teaching tool. They can be used to learn multiplication facts by heart (yes, really) and things like multiplication and division by powers of 10. The calculator is not there to do the calculation but to help the learner to a state where s(he) does not need it. It’s been a strategy that I’ve found it very hard to get across to the more traditionalist members of the community.


Einstein said:

Posted in Uncategorized by icttalk on December 18, 2017

“It is almost a miracle that modern teaching methods have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for what this delicate little plant needs more than anything, besides stimulation, is freedom.”

Is that true? Are you sure?

Posted in Uncategorized by icttalk on November 13, 2017

200 years ago John Keats wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Today in the Internet age we are wrestling not only with what constitutes truth but whether there are multiple realities in a connected world depending on culture and background. This is compounded by having a never seen before source of information, the web, and no history of strategies for being able to verify its accuracy.

Why is this important? To offer a sweeping generalisation if you are at primary school you might hand in a poor piece of homework, if you are in your teens you might end up with a risky diet and if you are of working age you might buy a non-existent timeshare. The actual list of dangers of not being web savvy probably runs to pages.

How easy it was with old technology, books. Well, yes and no. The confidence of accuracy with which we might have approached the school library might have been misplaced. Certainly, the contents of a book might have been mediated by its journey through the editing process but once printed there it stood, unchanged, as time, ideas and new discoveries overtook it.

However, there are facets of the old technology that are disappearing and these impact on a reader’s critical analysis of evidence. In the library you would find a considerable but, compared to online, still limited selection from which to choose. Decisions would be made, texts scanned. Online one seldom gets past the first page of search results. Stop to think about how something gets to the top of a search and you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s ranked by suitability but it’s not. This is where we enter the dark arts of search engine optimisation (SEO) a subject so mysterious and difficult that it’s probably why there were seven different teachers of defence against the dark arts plus one fraud in Harry Potter’s time at Hogwarts.

As an almost automatic authenticity check a quick scam of a book’s cover would tell you the author, the publisher and the date of publication but how many people can say the same of a website? To find further work of the same kind a book would publish a bibliography but with a website we have hyperlinks. Can you tell if they’re just links to other authors who perhaps have in a sort of incestuous way been sources for the site you’re looking at or have used that site as a source for themselves? The information can just circulate round a group of sites, the volume making the content appear more prevalent than it actually is. You might even be looking at links to the same author’s other work and this will not be clear.

Where to start? The first stop must always be common sense particularly if the reader is taken by surprise by the content. It’s also helpful to begin a search with a site you trust. There might be errors but at least you can be sure that they are honest ones.

Knowing how to search is also an underdeveloped skill. That might come as a surprise given the number of daily hits on search engines like Google but choosing key words is something that needs training. Imagine you know how to limit your search to sites from a particular country. Different countries on different sides of the same event will not refer to it in the same way. If you want to see the point of view of country X then you’d better search their sites using their own terms.

It’s also possible to search on just one site or just academic sites.

Next stop might be to check, if not the author’s identity, then the domain name registrant. Follow up but checking links in to the site. If they’re all from questionable political groups or sites suggesting sources for researching about ‘fake news’ then alarm bells will ring. Then have a look to see if the website’s assertions have been called out on sites like snopes.com.

All this takes time but an acceptance that it’s necessary at least means that blind acceptance of published content is decreasing.

The punchline, however, is how many schools teach their pupils these skills?

Digital storytelling or demonstrating learning

Posted in Uncategorized by icttalk on August 24, 2017

It takes a long time to integrate fully a new technology and see it become the norm. I suspect the dominant method for creating stories or reports is still paper based but there are opportunities to tell stories and demonstrate learning in transformational ways.

The downside is that achieving good levels of production makes this a longer job than traditional methods but the upside is that it delivers some of the computing National Curriculum.

A personal favourite is creating a map. If your story is location based or you are reporting on some historical event, for example, putting markers on a map that when clicked on reveal text, images and video is very exciting.

I first got the idea when Penguin released a book like this. Unfortunately, Google Maps has ‘improved’ making it harder but scribblemaps.com is also worth a look. Markers can be numbered to take you through in sequence. If maps can be saved as a .kml file they can be used to make a tour in Google Earth. I particularly like the idea of being able to visit some of the locations in classics like War and Peace.

My rather ordinary example has just two markers but having clicked on one it reveals some text, a photo and a video. I’m sure you can do much better!

What about making a film? The scriptwriting alone is a literacy task of some magnitude. A news report from history might be made using an app like Green Screen that now costs a massive £2.99 and will allow you to deliver a report against a background image or archive film. Don’t spend a fortune on a green screen though. A background of sheets of sugar paper works too.

With programming such a focus writing a program that demonstrates presentation of some other curriculum area gives it a real purpose. An animation in Scratch is a very good use of it.

And on the subject of animation, don’t tell anyone but you can use PowerPoint to make an animation that transitions automatically from slide to slide and then export it as a movie file. No one will ever know!

Instead of setting an exercise to demonstrate mastery why not make a ‘how to’ screencast or use an app like Explain Everything or Educreations?

You can make an online book with turning pages by writing your content in a word processor or something like PowerPoint. You’ll need a lot of content or you won’t have pages to turn though. Save as a .pdf and upload to issuu.com or youblisher.com. Be patient for the upload to complete and make sure the provider won’t put adverts on your work.

And then there’s an interactive information screen where users click on hyperlinks to go to the content they want.

And that’s leaving aside the plethora of apps created specifically for telling a story!

Online safety and digital literacy: how do they feature in schools?

Posted in Uncategorized by icttalk on May 22, 2017

Christina Preston of MirandaNet and I are writing a report for the UK DfE on the teaching of digital literacy and, more widely, how to stay safe online in our schools. We think these topics might be slipping through cracks in the curriculum even as it becomes ever more important.

In this blog post the views expressed are my own, based on experience more than researched evidence, but Christina and I would welcome MirandaNet members’ thoughts on these issues. We invite you  to respond to this short, anonymous survey.

Your ideas and suggestions, for which we are grateful, will inform the content of the report and can have some effect on ensuring an effective curriculum policy on these issues. Drawing on the wide experience of MirandaNet readers will be absolutely invaluable.

My work nowadays is almost exclusively e-safety work with teachers, parents and children. Interestingly my last three engagements, and for that matter the next one too, have all been in response to safety problems arising from children’s online use. In terms of their understanding of risk and a readiness to separate their behaviour online from that offline little seems to have changed since I did my masters dissertation more than 15 years ago.

This sort of ‘firefighting’ means the short term is devoted to specific environments rather than the generic behaviours that will still be present when the current apps or social networks are passé and the next big thing has arrived.

In school online safety seems to be divorced from safeguarding in general or perhaps it’s simply not registering. Parental engagement is lukewarm, even from parents who are very careful in the physical world, which I think throws up some interesting questions about how safe behaviours are passed on. This is the first generation of parents who cannot pass on what they were taught by their parents as the phenomenon did not exist when they were young. It would be unfair to single out parents as being the only group struggling to come to terms with online life. Teachers, too, are playing catch-up with limited time available and like parents have no cultural background to fall back on. The demands of the tested curriculum and schools’ published accountability might also be an issue.

I suspect that in schools there is still an emphasis on ‘events’ rather than curriculum integration with e-safety, when it is addressed, seen as the preserve of the computing teacher.

It is alarming that not only do few students or teachers know how to use a search engine effectively but that no one is learning how to be critical of the sites they visit. Just as with online ‘friends’ there are issues of trust here. There are no strategies taught to find out who or what is behind a site. Ask a group of teenagers if they know how to use Google. They’ll look at you as if you’re nuts but few have strategies for deciding on search terms or looking at results that are beyond the first page. Very few will be able to search to find alternative views because searches use the language of the culture the searcher lives in. Issues of copyright or using Creative Commons are rarely thought about. This sort of thing is the bottom line of digital literacy.

As an aside, the introduction of effective technology use including these subsets under discussion is akin to turning a large oil tanker. It takes a long time and is very slow. It is all very well government telling us how important any given thing is but it won’t happen unless time is given to teachers. The issues, such as digital literacy, will not happen easily; they need an investment of time and this is something schools do not have much of. Additionally, it is worth reminding ourselves of the pressures of being a ‘good’ school and noting that this places an emphasis on externally assessed English and mathematics, particularly in primary schools, and not being surprised if schools respond to this pressure.

Once again, to respond to the anonymous survey on these issues please click here.

Your input is much appreciated. Thank you.

BETT 2017

Posted in Uncategorized by icttalk on January 29, 2017

I had my annual day at BETT on Friday. I always enjoy going but detected a not altogether unexpected quietness relative to other years. Luckily I made some new friends!


I’m much more interested in what students learn than with massive systems that measure everything down to a learner’s pulse rate. Assessment is about being able to offer learning at the best possible level which is what good teachers do by osmosis.

Anyway back to my new friends (and their industrial counterparts) and their cousin Virtual Reality. Leaving aside the fact that some schools can barely afford staff never mind hardware of this quality I came away with a renewed belief that we need a curriculum for 2050 rather than one for 1950.


But I learnt a bit about dancing!

Let’s remember…

Posted in Uncategorized by icttalk on May 5, 2016

From the BBC:

“Computers ‘do not improve’ pupil results, says OECD” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-34174796

From OECD:

“Schools have yet to take advantage of the potential of technology in the classroom to tackle the digital divide and give every student the skills they need in today’s connected world, according to the first OECD PISA assessment of digital skills.” http://www.oecd.org/education/new-approach-needed-to-deliver-on-technologys-potential-in-schools.htm

In short, it’s not about plonking students in front of a machine, it’s about being able to use the machine effectively and appropriately. Obvious?

Long division? What could possibly go wrong?

Posted in Uncategorized by icttalk on March 1, 2016

To say that long division is difficult is an understatement. The teachers who have the onerous task of teaching it know how to do it but the problem then is recognising all those tiny facets that are so internalised as to be invisible. Of course a teacher needs to know how to do it but they also need to know how NOT to do it. This is where problems are identified and children learn faster. Too often children are just taught a routine and some learners just don’t ‘get it’. This is a big routine!

So what understanding is going on (or not) under the surface? Here’s one:

Screenshot 2016-02-23 10.07.01

After lots of short division we need to understand that it is unnecessary to ask how many 27s in 3. A two digit number is never going to go into a single digit. And what if it doesn’t go into the first two digits? Why do some children write a zero? No need for a place holder. (Concept: Place value)

Screenshot 2016-02-23 10.08.18

Why do we have to subtract? The concept that a remainder is the result of a subtraction is unspoken in short division. The difference is often seen rather than calculated. (Concept: Remainder)

Screenshot 2016-02-23 10.08.44

So there it is. What now? Bring down the 5? Why? We have to unlearn the putting the remainder in front of the 5 like we would in short division, possibly because when the remainder is double digit it would be crowded. However, too often there is an incantation of ‘bring down the 5’ because it’s the next step to be remembered rather than for a reason of maths. (Concept: Place value)

Screenshot 2016-02-23 10.09.18

And so the process repeats either by rote or by understanding.

Screenshot 2016-02-23 10.10.15

But look at the next part. How many 27s in 217? Has the learner practised situations like this as a one off? (Concept: Estimation)

Screenshot 2016-02-23 10.11.02

I thought 7 but there are issues about whether another 27 can be found, shades of chunking. Is it OK if it’s a bit more than 217 rather than way under? In the end it was 8. If I take my eye off the ball to work this out without an understanding of the process I might end up re-entering the algorithm at the wrong point. (Concept: Multiplication, Inverse, Division as whole shares)

Screenshot 2016-02-23 10.12.40

So there we are, 128 remainder 1. No good? 128 1/27? You want a decimal? (Concept: Equivalent fractions)

Screenshot 2016-03-01 17.28.04

Where did that .0 come from? We didn’t have unnecessary zeros at the start so why now? (Concept: Decimals)

Screenshot 2016-03-01 17.28.04

How many 27s in 10? Am I allowed a zero here or do I just stick another one on to make it 100?

And so it goes on. When to stop? Do we know anything about rounding to a certain number of decimal places? (Concept: Rounding)

The whole process is a minefield of potential misconception not to mention differences of process from the already learned short algorithm.

This will not be well learned by a rhythmic repetition of different stages but by understanding of concepts from earlier learning not all of which gets a mention in the National Curriculum in earlier years.


Whatever Will Become Of Computing?

Posted in Uncategorized by icttalk on February 5, 2015

Every morning, and I mean EVERY morning, I wake up to an email from Computing At School full of news about events, new resources and comment. There are clearly some lucky young people out there on the receiving end of all this. I mention it lest you think my mission is to be negative. It’s not. I simply want to remind folk to keep their eye on the ball and to describe what I think the ball looks like.

You see, despite areas of excellence and schools that are doing their best for now and hoping to develop year on year (so please folks don’t criticise until you can’t see progress) there are some who are still doing little or, in some classes, nothing.

I want to explore some possible reasons for inertia and the risk they pose to what should be a groundbreaking curriculum development that is Computing. Not surprisingly it’s a cocktail of interacting factors that no doubt vary from situation to situation.

Let’s start with Ofsted. Download a recent report for a primary school and find me a reference to Computing. You’ll find plenty of references to mathematics and literacy but Computing? If I had a small bet on every report since, say, October 2014 I think I might make some money. Perhaps this absence is a factor of the amount of time in school available to inspectors or maybe it has something to do with the availability of inspectors with the necessary expertise. In any event what messages does it send about the subject’s importance? Computing is statutory, right? Well so was ICT and look what happened to that!

Imagine you’re in a school that has annual SATS results that are always around the norm after months of effort and booster lessons etc. English and mathematics again. Where are your efforts focussed? I’m sure there will be a lot of schools that meet my description that have a really broad curriculum all the same but SATS are the things that end up in the local paper, and the in-tray of the local school improvement team. It probably looks as if I’m having a go at a perceived rather shallow approach to education in some schools. I’m really not. I was a teacher for 30 years and I appreciate the things that weigh heavily.

Teacher expertise is another important factor. Unsurprisingly our primary schools are not full of Computer Science graduates who have chosen teaching. Courses are offered and meetings arranged but why is take up sometimes so low? Believe it or not teachers really are busy. Don’t imagine that by simply creating another imperative time magically appears. It’s something that few people who haven’t worked in schools can understand. Teacher, surrogate parent, referee, advocate, therapist… Somehow time needs setting aside without taking teachers from where their head teacher needs them most; in the classroom with the children.

The volume of the training task is considerable too. It can’t be done on a single one-day course any more than you can run a course that supplies experience. Imagine trying to learn a foreign language on a one-day course. The idea is absurd. In the same way a completely new subject needs a lot of time and time is something many schools and teachers don’t have.

This has scarcely been a carefully managed piece of research, generalisable across all schools but I started to write it when the factors I have mentioned became too obvious for me to ignore. The content is based on observation and conversations with people who are at the sharp end. Let’s not allow an exciting curriculum development to become marginalised by default.

But let’s end on a positive. It can be done because it is being done in a lot of places and it’s a great subject. I’ve just had an email from someone in a primary school. It says, “I think I need to make my lessons more boring. They’re having way too much fun.”

Notes from a grumpy old man

Posted in Uncategorized by icttalk on February 1, 2015

I went to the BETT exhibition recently and noticed a change. It seemed to be far more about product than education. Each presentation seemed to be about how it could transform your class or school and solve all your problems and was aimed at all the things that are at the front of a teacher’s mind nowadays. It’s education but not as I know it. Still, I no longer have to do it so what’s my problem?

I have a granddaughter who has just started school and is full of enthusiasm for learning. Her little brother will be joining her soon so I want the best for them. That might include tools and systems but most of all it is about teachers who can use them innovatively. Instead we have lists of ‘stuff’ to be done. It’s called the National Curriculum. There seems to be no thought about how topics connect nor what prior learning is necessary. Children who can already read are unlearning the ability to use context to decipher words as they struggle to read nonsense words phonetically. Now I see on Andrew Marr’s programme this morning that the key indicator of success in maths is the ability to learn multiplication facts to 12 x 12.

Why this has surfaced again when it is already in the NC I can’t understand. Now, I like the idea of being proficient in basic multiplication. I’m not suggesting abandoning learning and getting out the crayons and the wendy house.It means you don’t have to take your eye off a problem while you grapple for a relevant fact but I get the strong impression that it is seen too often as an end in itself. And why 12? I could have sworn our system was decimal. I used to use multiplying by 12 as a way of learning how to multiply double digit numbers mentally as x 10 and x2 were already internalised. Perhaps we could continue to 16 x 16; it might have some benefit with things hexadecimal.

There seems nowadays no need to function mathematically, merely to compute. It is ‘the basics’ it is ‘traditional’. This despite the fact that inspector and government reports going back 150 years lament poor standards. Children will still get what they always got. Ask any adult who endured ‘traditional’ maths how they liked it. You won’t get many takers and few people become good at something they don’t like. Those of us at school in the 50s and 60s were the generation for whom it was OK to be no good at maths. And yet that is what we are told is the way forward.

What a shame that a subject so important and so exciting keeps being reduced to lists of facts while innovating with Computing. Bob Harrison tweeted “Surely now children are taught about algorithms and to code they could write a programme (sic) for 12 times table and a spelling/grammar check?” Yes, but they wouldn’t be allowed to use it in maths lessons!