Sunday, April 26, 2015

Just change one word

Ever found yourself describing a student or a class to another colleague as "low ability"? It's a shortcut we use more frequently than we may realise, even if said in the most caring, well-intentioned way. Early in my teacher education at Sydney University, I was very fortunate to be given a very simple and powerful idea: change one word.  Replace the word "ability" with "achievement". 

The result may surprise you. Here's my favorite example: next time you hear yourself saying: "Let's save that (interesting, challenging) activity for the high ability class", change it to: "Let's save that (interesting, challenging) activity for the high achieving class". Wow! Would you really want to do that? Changing one word isn't about being politically correct - it's about altering our mindset from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. When done with awareness, changing one word can make a real impact in your classroom and your school.

It's approaching five years now since I graduated from Sydney University, and this simple idea continues to pay dividends in my teaching. So it seemed only fitting to make it the topic for my presentation at our alumni conference, SUSMAC 2015. 

With thanks to Judy Anderson and Maria Quigley for organising the conference, and to Eddy Woo for his work to make the conference available on the internet.

For a full set of videos and notes from SUSMAC 2105, featuring a keynote from Andrew Martin, and over 20 short presentations from teachers and preservice teachers, see:


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Pi Collection : 50 maths enrichment books for your school libary

A little project I've been working on for the last year with my school librarians: we call it "The Pi Collection".  

We've built a carefully selected collection of around 50 books with maths themes - fiction and non-fiction, in an effort to entice our students to engage with mathematics beyond their regular classroom work.

Officially our idea is to encourage students to read more widely and deepen connections between maths and other subjects, but in truth, we just love having these great books available to share with our students. So, when, for example, we're exploring extra dimensions, we can ask "What if someone built a house in four dimensions?" - and point at the classic Robert Heinlein short story "And he built a crooked house" which just happens to be the library waiting for you to read.  Or when we're talking about equations, and wondering if we could use them to describe everything - point students at the wonderful Isaac Asimov "Foundation" series - every thirteen-year old nerdy boy's dream of running the universe through maths.   Or perhaps someone thinks girls don't math? Well have we got several books in the Pi Collection to show you otherwise!

Along the journey of building the collection, we've discovered books about people who think differently ("Born on a Blue Day"), a terrific manga-style book questioning the inner truth of logic in mathematics ("Logicomix") and short stories about what could happen if you were allowed to divide by zero ("Stories of your life"). And who could forget that the answer to the meaning of life is 42 ("Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy") - a book which also has great fun exploring probability - remember the "Improbability Drive"?  Doing permutations and combinations? Well that's just begging for a reference to Arthur C. Clarke's short story "The Nine Billion Names of God".

Nothing however quite had the impact of "The Cold Equations" - this flew off the shelf as soon as we posted it up:

Maths tells our hero he needs to eject his stowaway into space.
His heart tells him otherwise. What decision will he make? 

I was a little worried about the unsubtle appeal  to baser instincts - but hey - anything to get the students reading! And it turns out our English faculty teaches Science Fiction in Year 7 and The Detective Novel in Year 8 - so we made sure to select books in these genres that also had a maths element.  As we expand the collection, we're finding more connections to Geography, History, Science and Art.

We've also included maths extension and enrichment books for curious students who want to go beyond the official high school curriculum. Collections of classic puzzle books, short articles on maths topics as well as some more challenging books. We even snuck in a few that might encourage some students to consider a teaching career (thank your Mr Lockhart!).

The full list is available here. Do you know of any books we should add?

Looking for more maths themed books?  An invaluable resource is Alex Kasman's collation of titles. Some care is required though, because not every book here is suitable for high school students.

Updated: 2015 Semester 1 Pi Collection

Thursday, October 23, 2014

AB Quizzes in the mathematics classroom

Notes and resources for a presentation I gave to the North Sydney Region Maths Association this week:

PowerPoint template for an AB quiz

Author's copy of article in MANSW Reflections - 2013 Conference Issue

Thanks for the invite and feedback - some great ideas from the group to experiment further with the AB Quiz concept.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Bringing "childishness" into the mathematics classroom

Why would you show a Sesame Street video to a senior Year 12 mathematics classroom? Is there any value is doing paper folding exercises with such a class?  Here's my thoughts on the value of bringing "childishness" into every mathematics classroom - no matter the age group or the current achievement level, presented at a recent conference.

Games played by children and mathematicians
April 23, 2014
University of Sydney, Mathematics Education Alumni 2014 Conference. 

Or just preview the presentation:
Click on the image for the Google Drive document

Sunday, March 9, 2014


It's been a very long time between posts ...

CC-BY-NC Gabriela Ruellan
A very big change has happened in my teaching career - I have become the head of a mathematics department. I have been extremely fortunate to move to a school with a terrific faculty, a very supportive executive team and the most amazing students you could ever hope to teach. 

However even in the most ideal environment, the time pressures on a new head teacher are unbelievable and there is a very steep learning curve. As such, I'm putting this blog into a dormancy period. 

Thank you for your readership in the last few years and hopefully I will be blogging again later in the year.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Fruit vectors: checking for understanding in the mechanics classroom

Here's a small idea I had while teaching mechanics that turned out to have very surprising and fruitful results in my classroom.

So our class has been working on mechanics for a few weeks now, we think we know the basics from a physical and a mathematical view. It's time to look at something harder now: circular motion.  But just before we do that, let's check we really understand.

Can you draw vectors, any sort you like, and tell a story about what is happening here?

.. and this one ....

How about this one?

It was surprising just how much discussion resulted from just these three diagrams, by asking students to draw velocity vectors, acceleration vectors and force vectors - and then tell a narrative in mathematical and in physical terms. Many misconceptions dealt with!

And now for the reward, setting things up for circular motion. What are the acceleration vectors (and hence the force vectors) for this picture?

By the time you have finished working out the vectors it's very clear what is required to move in a circle, even at a constant speed. What I love about this activity is that the students have developed an intuitive mathematical sense for what the result should be even before we start doing the detailed analysis to get the acceleration and force equations.

Resource: Here's a version of the diagrams I gave to students to scribble on:

or get this from Google drive: Thinking about motion (free download)

Sunday, September 15, 2013

MANSW 2013 Presentation

A quick post for those wanting to see a copy of my presentation this morning at MANSW. Thanks to all who attended and gave such enthusiastic support - all the more so given it was 9AM on Sunday morning after a very late night conference dinner!

Three tools: The ABQuiz, the Tracking Sheet, the Feedback Form
September 15, 2013
MANSW 2013 Conference, Terrigal.

Google docs - free download:

Links to the Feedback Form tools:
Feedback Form template (Word doc)
Feedback Form analysis (Excel spreadsheet)

Read it now in Scribd: