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Education in Victoria is succeeding in some areas, but failing in many others – we have new school buildings, but they are overflowing and the school rolls climbing so quickly that teachers and principals have no bandwidth left for improving educational outcomes.  Schools are adapting to technology, but failing to handle the wide range of ability and rates of learning our kids have. The system is not flexible enough to handle the needs of low achievers and high achievers in specific areas.

Every couple of months there is a new study showing how badly Australia is doing compared to other countries in areas such as Math.  We know there are approaches that have worked elsewhere but we seem unwilling or unable to change and adopt them.

Homeschooling is an important right for Victorians – in many cases it is the only way to solve problems with bullying, with low achieving students and with high achieving students.  Homeschooling is a rising demographic which serves as an important barometer of how well our schools are serving students and parents.

If the government understands this, then it will understand the value in Homeschooling, and will preserve that  right as a legal option, and keep the current registration regulations intact.   Homeschooling also serves the Dept of Education – it relieves pressure form a strained system, and gives a flexible way of educating students who are not well served by schools.  It is part of the solution, not part of the problem.

It is so important that the Department of Education _listen_ to Homeschoolers, not try to tell them how to educate, or punish them – rather use it as important feedback.  I was surprised to find many ex-teachers among Homeschool parents, and other parents had studied education theories in some depth.  Homeschoolers as a rule are those who value education highly – they are pro-education, not anti-education.

I can say personally, it is heart rending to make the decision to take your child from school, you would only do it if there was a real problem to solve, or a clear benefit in doing so.

My son has just turned 13yo, he is by some accounts gifted – but the reality is simply that he was read to a lot from an early age, and had some opportunities for books and learning and discussion, and excelled because of normal healthy genes and a supportive environment.   He has attended public schools in inner Melbourne for 3 years, the other years being Homeschooled – so I have some basis on which to compare the good and bad of each approach.

Early this year he was accepted into the SEAL program at a very good new school in inner Melbourne.  The SEAL program is great for many kids because they immediately skip a year and jump ahead closer to their current level.  I’m in favor of the SEAL program, its a good thing – but its not the complete answer.  In my sons case he was repeating material he had done a couple years earlier in Math, so the homework was ‘busy work’.

I tried him out on year 10 questions and he worked through them well, so it seemed he was at that level.  I asked the teacher if he could work ahead in Math, then asked the year coordinator and finally the deputy principal – and was surprised that this request was politely ignored in every case.  At first I was angry, but then I realized that they probably just saw my request as “more work” for them, and they are already straining to keep up with massive expansion in student numbers.   The roll is growing at a massive rate, and I think this is why they just don’t have bandwidth to gather a real focus on learning outcomes, let alone catering flexibly to students who fall outside the norm.

As an aside, there are ways to teach and learn math that are vastly better for all students than the approach we have in most Australian schools now.  You don’t have to invent new methods, they are tried and work well overseas – you can read about Jo Boaler, ProofSchool, MathCircles, KhanAcademy, AoPS.com, Australian Math Competition etc. You can read any review of our current math texts by university mathematicians, or look at any comparison study with other countries to know we are doing it badly.   The system needs to be flexible enough to accommodate and experiment with these new methods.  Its not the curricula per-se, it is the way its communicated – it is not visual enough, it is too topic-centric and should be more problem-centric, it is not interactively explored.

Id like to see schools adopt these approaches – but right now they are too busy handling roll growth alone, and in moving from paper books to ipads.

This means the only solution, for now, is to Homeschool your child if they excel in Math – school is a hostile environment towards learning math deeply.

We need to change the way we think about Homeschooling – it is valuable for mainstream education in Australia, it is a place to see how new methods work and take the needed risks in new approaches to learning.  It is a pressure valve for a school system experiencing the stress of rapid growth, and it is the only way to accommodate that small minority of students who will not excel at schools, no matter how good those schools become in future.

To this end I propose that the Victorian Government / Department of Education Victoria consider supporting Homeschooling in the following practical ways :

  • Preserve the current lite-touch Homeschool registration regulations in Victoria [ realise that making regulations tighter will likely result in mass non-registration ]
  • Fund a fulltime Homeschool liaison specialist educator in DETV  [ to support homeschoolers, not police them ! ]
  • Establish an open registry of public school events that Homeschoolers can join in with
  • Fund several masters/phd opt-in studies on Homeschool education approaches and attainments
  • Fund Math and Science specific programs for both schools and homeschoolers, eg: [ alternative curriculum materials, such as AoPS.com books,  Math Circles and Robot workshops ]
  • Establish a yearly tax deduction for extra costs associated with homeschooling your child [ taken from the money that homeschooling saves the government on schooling ]

Just made a couple of videos explaining multiplication in a visual way, using the ‘Box Method’

Playlist on youtube, here

gridmaths_mult_36x27_calcs

A MathCircle is where a group of young people get together and work on some interesting Math-related topics introduced by a mentor.

The topics are sometimes problems like you find on ArtOfProblemSolving.com or Math Competitions [ vis AMC Sample Questions ].  They can cover quirky topics that aren’t normally seen in the school curriculum, such as Catalan Numbers.

The idea sounds geeky, and is un-apologetically so, yet has the potential to engage students who might be bored with the traditional material.   It preps interested students for careers in science / finance / medicine / engineering and helps the school do well in math and science competitions.  Math Circle meets can also be a lot of fun.

Why

Question : “Why do we need more math.. we already do that in school, right?”

Answer : “yeah..but you don’t learn enough Tennis in PE class to become a club player, and you don’t get enough Instrument practice in Music class to get into music school .. you really need to train, to play in an ensemble and have dedicated practice for that.”

MathCircle takes the same approach of intensive practice which you find in Basketball practice, Dance club, Swim meet or musical instrument group … except focused on math-related skills.

Practice with Duration + Intensity

One important aspect that both Math problem solving and programming share is the sustained concentration on one task – in my opinion we have gone too far in the direction of byte size chunks of learning.  Sometimes you need to chew on things for a while.

We can look at how Basketball and Music are learnt, and apply what works to math.   Training sessions often last for 2 hours, and this is accepted as a social norm – it is well understood it takes time to get into the zone.. repeat the basics, introduce a new skill, practice it, and integrate and perfect it over time thru a range of scenarios.

Its also not about the one or two elite players – the whole team improves and transfer skills around and offer peer-support thru the shared activity.  It can help develop individual qualities that are useful for success in other areas of life, namely ‘character’.

With Code

MathCircle is something most parents haven’t heard of .. but teaching young people how to program is an easy sell – it has had a lot of positive marketing over the last year or so, and its a clear pathway to a good salary.

I also think that writing small programs is a great way to introduce and discover math ideas .. its tactile, interactive, hands on, iterative, experimental.  Your also working with the real concepts – a lot of educational apps and games seem to win in terms of engaging and entertaining, but lose in terms of conveying deeper ideas.  When your making a program you are really tinkering under the hood with the engine, not just zooming around the racetrack.  So a MathCircle with an emphasis on making your own programs to investigate math topics, and using tools like Geogebra, might work really well.

Example Topics

A MathCircle which has a code-things-up emphasis, we could call a MathCodeCircle.

Here are some topics that might be covered in such a MathCodeCircle :

  • find prime number factors, use for solving lcm/gcf problems
  • pong game variant – balls bounce around and collide
  • adding waves together – beats, square waves
  • simulate jumpy stock prices, compare with compound interest
  • planets orbiting / solar system simulator
  • circle inversion using GeoGebra

Most of these would be developed in javascript, and run in the browser – using the canvas api to render 2D graphics – its real programming.

More

Some links if your interested :

 

 

 

Guest post by my son, after a wee bit of prompting from dad to make a diagram and work it out :

 

GridmathsExponentsCropped

Here’s a nice problem to introduce simultaneous equations and Algebra.  I saw this on the singaporemathsplus.net blog here

There are 100 chickens and rabbits altogether. The chickens have 80 more legs than the rabbits. How many chickens and how many rabbits are there?

In GridMaths there are a couple ways to approach simultaneous equations visually – sometimes you might use a different color bean to represent each variable, lets say an orange jellybean and a brown coffee bean, and you don’t know how much each weigh, but you might be able to figure it out.  This is nice, as your not tempted to add apples and oranges together [ or jellybeans and coffee beans ].

Another way is to have rectangles or lengths and color or shade them differently – this is easy in GridMaths, you just draw color rectangles, or Cuisenaire Rod lengths.  Remember to make the point this is not to scale, you cant yet measure off the diagram, the length is standing in for the real length which youll arrive at.

Here’s a sheet with the C chickens and R rabbits problem [ Chickens in green, Rabbits in orange, known lengths in blue ] :

gridmaths_022

Apparently this is called the ‘Bar method’ in Singapore maths – I think its good to have a name so teachers, parents and kids can talk about this approach.  Someone asked me about an earlier post, whether it was the Singapore method.. and actually no, I’m not familiar with that method or series of books.. but from what I hear it seems quite good in terms of using visual keys to get the concepts across.

Here’s another problem solved using pink! jellybeans and brown coffee beans to represent X and Y :

gridmaths_023

A good order to broach these ways of looking at simultaneous equations  is :

  • a word problem
  • jellybean approach
  • shaded length bars
  • algebra / variable names
  • linear graph intersection

Likewise, I think that using rectangles for multiplication is a huge thing that isn’t done enough.  This approach can help reach some learners who see algebra as just wacky rules with no meaning.  The great thing about this Visual representation is its easy to work with.. and leads directly to algebra.   Once you’ve done a couple, you can just use letters instead of colored lengths and everything works the same way.  So its seen as an efficiency, to save making the diagram each time.

I was first introduced to simultaneous equations through one of the books of W.W.Sawyer a great teacher of math teachers.  I read his book as a youngster and so got interested in Calculus.. he had a wonderful way of making things simple and interesting.  He talked about how the average speed of a car over its entire journey was not that important, if you happened to get hit by the car just when it was travelling at its maximum speed.  In court you’d want to know the average velocity of the car in the few meters and seconds before the event.. this led directly to ds/dt type discussion.  Awesome guy!

Some comments in response to a video TED talk that Conrad Wolfram gave called “Teaching Kids real math with computers”

I did enjoy Wolframs video, but I think its too tempting to take away computations.. in doing so we risk losing the math understanding behind them.  I just think we need more of both : more understanding and more facility with actual practical problem solving.

Technology can help to explain math better. I just found this video today, which contains a superb intro to Bezier curves, among other things.   I think this would be pretty engaging to high school students, be a motivation for them to learn calculus.

One of the things I wanted with GridMaths is to take some of the pressure off long working out but also have the student solve the problem for themselves. Its easier to line up numbers in long multiplication and you tend to make less typos. By design, GridMaths is _not_ a calculator, there are other apps that do that well.

I’m currently working on a hybrid approach where you can use ASCIIMathML to get good looking math expressions, which should open GridMaths up to wider use at high-school level. Maybe we can make worked problems less of a chore and more about understanding … but still keep the facility and practice with computations at a good level.

I can remember an awful lot of fiddling around with sharpening pencils and erasers at school..  push-pencils solved that, but I must have bought 15 different compasses :]  Once a person can write legibly, maybe the emphasis should segway from paper to electronic tools, but still keep the ability to do the constructions, structure the essay, think critically, type well, organise computations etc.

I recently saw a report from one school where they moved to 1-to-1 tablets, where they saw savings of ~20k/month in stationary costs.. maybe exaggerated and an affluent school, but paper is kind of expensive at volume.

Its certainly a lot quicker to make a GeoGebra construction on a tablet, than to do it with ruler, compass, dividers, protractor and pencil … you can concentrate on the concepts and specifics, rather than paper-management. Then the diagram you construct is malleable, you can drag and interact… that’s a big innovation, and helps understanding.

I wonder what ways software can help take the load off teachers, so the mechanics are easier for them, and they can spend more time teaching face to face.

So GridMaths.com is in open beta, now works reasonably well on iPad and recent desktop browsers.  Android browser support coming sometime soon.

Heres a pic my 9yo created while testing things out on the iPad.. with the obligatory battle scene [ dad vs browser quirks ? ] :

gridmaths_017_paul_dwg

Here’s a couple of sheets on how I like to present long multiplication…

Firstly a concrete rectangle where you can actually count the squares to satisfy yourself its right…

gridmaths_018

Then move to a more compact form, which still shows the rectangle grid, but not to scale..

gridmaths_019

This shows that lots of digits should not induce panic.. the same systematic approach works [ which is why computers can do multiplication so well ].

I think having the box grid is a nice way to remember where all the pieces come from [ single digit products ].  Also I think it really helps to use the blank grid spaces, rather than fill in every 0.

The lattice method is slightly more compact, but I think this box approach reminds students of whats really going on.

Thanks for all the emails and encouragement so far as I build this.

Enjoy, and let me know how your using GridMaths.

My son is working on some LCM word problems on Khanacademy.  LCM is short for “Least Common Multiple”, this KA vid explains it pretty well.

Basically the idea is to take two different measuring rods of two different lengths, start at the same place and keep measuring out lengths of each until the ends match up exactly : the first time this happens is at the LCM.

Easier to see than explain, especially if you get kids to experiment by putting rulers end to end, its kind of a nice little discovery, and the kind of open exploration that gives you the cool math-buzz when you discover something yourself.

I had fun doing a couple of these in GridMaths…

gridmaths_015

One nice thing is you can go step by step and see the rulers being added as they chase each other, with the ends not matching.. each team trying to win the race, each one getting ahead for a while..until the grand finale when…  ahh, its a dead heat !  :]

I guess the potential with a software tool, rather than paper, is that you could potentially have Cuisenaire measuring rods of any length [ a set of the first 50 primes would be a nice grab bag of tricks ] … and you could get LCM for larger numbers by just laying down more grid and scrolling to the right.  Its early days, so GridMaths doesn’t have this feature yet.. but I really like the fact that its open to doing things like this.

Prime Cuisenaire Rods anyone ?

When I was a kid there was this class where each student prepared their very own ice-cream container full of counting items – marbles, colored buttons, hexagonal Meccano nuts, etc. Somehow the teacher sold us on ‘owning’ and preparing our own stash, and I was very proud of sneaking in two tiny model mini cars and a couple of cool shells I picked up from the beach.

I also remember those lengths of wood in various colors used for counting/measuring things. These “Cuisenaire Rods” are magic, you can pick up a set on eBay from $10 to $15, or improvise with flat Lego units of different lengths and colors if you have those.

It would be unconscionable of me to not include this staple of Western math diet, so I give you a peak at Cuisinaire Rods in GridMaths.  I hope you like the spicy Mexican color scheme :

Image

Simple things, but these can be a very tactile way of developing a feel for fractions and division.   They lead into strange discoveries, like the fact that some numbers can’t be made exactly from repeats of smaller lengths… prime numbers !

Image

A special note to those of you who have taken time to read my experiments, and egg me on with your comments and feedback – your support is so important to me and my son, we heart you !

Just added a color palette to GridMaths, so it now has rectangles, lines, ellipses in few simple colors and weights.  The idea is to help make diagrams clearer, and help with Venn diagrams and other cases where you want to group things together.

Heres a grid sheet comparing fractions : 2/3 and 4/5 … then we show the product and sum using the same visual representation.

gridmaths_com_teaser_010

If you look carefully, you may notice that I ‘abuse’ the grid in that each grid square is 1/5 high and 1/6 wide – so a 1 unit x 1 unit square is actually 6×5 grid squares.  I think this is a legal abuse, in that we often graph things with different x and y axis scales.

The alternative is to have a resizeable non-square grid.. which I think creates too much complexity for not much gain.  The philosophy of GridMaths is “keep it simple”, so you can do the basics quickly and easily.   I used to think more features = more power = better, but after my son showed me the Minecraft game, and all the cool things people have built with it, I changed my mind about this.  I kept thinking.. why is Minecraft so popular, when you can do all that and more in Blender ?  Blender is a superb free 3D modelling package, which like all powerful modelling packages takes a while to become proficient at.  So, it dawned on me that Minecraft is so brilliant because it brings down the barrier to entry, and makes the 80% of things you need to do to make a world, really easy and quick for everyone.

So I’m adding the most useful things to GridMaths in a way that keeps it really simple.  Its not an algebra system, it most likely wont have handwriting recognition… but it should be a really fast way for math teachers to make Math diagrams and for students to do a wide range of worked Math problems, replacing grid paper for that 80% of tasks and adding some nice features.   Its kind of like an infinite supply of grid paper, that weights nothing and can be erased and replayed, and saved for later use  And.. you can step forward and back thru your edits and change stuff, and students can step thru a worked problem.  And you have counting beans and … :-]