Writing curriculum is more than writing lessons

The last post I wrote I promised I would talk about what I’ve done for the last 18 months working for Illustrative Mathematics. I thought I would do that all wrapped up with a few (not all) of the things I have learned working with such an amazing group of people.

In July/August we launched the Illustrative Mathematics 6-8 Curriculum [you’ll need to register to view teacher materials, go ahead and do that. It’s free. I’ll wait]. It was a product of a phenomenal quantity of people hours of work (just check out the contributor list!) and we’re very proud of it. Many of my fellow writers have written about things in the curriculum (and I’ll be joining them in doing so later this month) so I’ll add a list of current posts at the end.

OK, onto some things I learned.

There’s a lot more to writing a lesson than just what the students do.

There’s more than the solutions too. There’s thinking about the teacher moves, how it fits in the story of the section and the unit and the course. There’s extensions, digital alternatives and support for students with a variety of challenges. There’s images (more on those later) and making those images fit on a printed page in a sensible way. There’s anticipating student misconceptions and communicating in a useful way what teachers might do to help. And there’s also remembering to use the right names for characters in a consistent fashion.

It takes a lot of cooks to make the broth

They all have a lot to contribute. Those different facets above may well all come from different people. And it’s important they’re on the same page. We spent a lot of time hashing out early (and later) core understandings, techniques, strategies… the list goes on. We tried to all use the same language and phrasing, to make the courses sound like they were written by one person, even if it was written by 20. Hopefully we got it right! In that process, I learned that there are so many more ways to approach teaching and lesson design than I had appreciated before.

It’s not just a content team

We have an amazing team of engineers at IM, and they worked magic. I was lucky enough to get to work with them, and the engineers at Open Up Resources, as they made not only the content management system where all our content is stored, but also the public website with all the applets and teacher information. Beyond the engineering team, there’s a whole bunch of PD Facilitators who help get the curriculum working in classrooms and others in marketing and sales who helped me understand that. You need printers for your books, which means you have to actually care about page breaks and copy editing.


There’s more, but I don’t want this to run more than about 500 words, so I’ll leave it there. It’s been a crazy 18 months.

Oh, and we’re working on High School…

Posted in Curriculum, IM | Leave a comment


This is a really, REALLY delayed post. I meant to write this post 15 months ago, then at the start of 2017, then in July, then last month…

I am no longer in the Classroom. As of last summer I work for an amazing company called Illustrative Mathematics. We write curriculum, provide professional services, maintain a task database that illustrates alignment to the standards and have a team of brilliant people that it’s a pleasure to work with.

Two answers before I talk about the last 15 months in later posts.

Q: ‘Do you miss teaching?’

A: I miss being in the classroom with students, I miss doing the teaching part of teaching. I find sometimes when we write tasks I am disappointed I won’t get to use it and see first hand the light bulbs going on. I don’t miss [non exhaustive list] grading, dealing with poorly behaved students, pointless meetings, bad PD, often horrible hours…

Q: ‘What’s working for a US company like?’

A: Pretty good so far. I work from home, I spend some time (but not an inordinate amount of time) on web calls. I drink a lot of tea and coffee and sprinkle minutes and agendas with correctly spelled words like ‘colour’ and ‘favourite’.

Coming next, the project that I worked on over the last year, and what’s coming in the future.

Posted in Blogs, IM, Not Maths | Leave a comment

Why I will never use lolly sticks in my classroom.

Because, well, reasons.

I’m sure there are great reasons to use lolly sticks, or other randomisers – it creates a culture where everyone is expected to be attentive, or to articulate their thinking at any time or something. You may have great success with them in your classroom. That’s fine. Don’t tell me I have to, and here are a few reasons why.

  1. It removes my judgement as to who I need to ask about a question. I realised this when going through a re-arranging homework with a class. There was one student who had different looking answers to many questions, and I realised this when he put his hand up and answered a question. It presented a perfect opportunity for discussion about multiplication, division and the order we do steps in re-arranging formulae. It also turned out there were other students with similar looking answers who didn’t speak out. If I only selected at random and did not allow students to put their hands up, there’s a chance I miss this and two bad things happen: We miss out on a valuable learning experience and some students go away thinking their method is wrong, when it’s right.
  2. I taught a student with anxiety issues recently. Her biggest fear in college was that she would be called upon to answer a question and have to speak out in front of the class, particularly if she wasn’t certain of the answer. While it’s a good thing to help students overcome these fears, causing them misery and anxiousness because they might be called on at any point in a situation out of their control doesn’t seem like the best way to do that.
  3. An answer to the above is that I could just not include her name in my randomiser and that solves the problem. Seems like an elegant solution right? I remove the possibility she could ever be asked to answer. I also remove the possibility she could ever choose to answer as well. I essentially remove the opportunity for them to overcome their anxiety. That student above, about March time that year, she answered a question in class. A month later, she answered when she wasn’t sure she was right. If her name isn’t on the lolly stick, maybe she never gets that chance.
  4. That culture of attention and preparation, it’s also a culture of uncertainty. If you’ve ever been to a TeachMeet where they randomise the order of the presentations, you’ll know what I mean. Every time the randomiser spins you’re adrenaline starts pumping; will I be called to do my 2mins; will it go alright; will I forget my opening line, my carefully thought out response to a question at the end? By the time is gets to you 45mins later, you’re already exhausted. If it can happen to us, people who are used to speaking in front of an audience, think how it might feel for students in the room.

I guess the bottom line for me, is that I don’t find it helpful. Some people might. But like a lot of things in education, just because it works for you, doesn’t mean I should have to do it.

Posted in Assessment, Classroom, Not Maths, Pedagogy | 3 Comments

Two ways I try not to suck at formative assessment

This might end up being the content of a teachmeet prez in future, so bear with me if it’s a little scattershot

Formative assessment is hard. It’s probably up there with behaviour management, teaching a topic for the first time and having a life as one of the hardest things to do. Many people, very clever people, say its one of the most important things we can do though.

So maybe we should try hard to get it right. so here’s two ways I try to suck less at it.

Exit slips.

Exit slips are cool. SLT love them. Teachers love them. OFSTED probably love them too, but they aren’t allowed to tell us that. We all love them. I used them a lot for a while. It was great, I could sit down and confidently congratulate myself that all these students knew how to differentiate, or multiply by decimals or whatever my lesson had been on. Smashing stuff. And then a few weeks later they’d sit an assessment and get it wrong. Sometimes a bit wrong, sometimes REALLY wrong. Heartbreaking. It took me a while to understand what was going on. See I saw these exit slips as this:

exit 1

When really what they were telling me is something a bit closer to this:


Now this might be obvious. It probably is. But it took posts like this from David Didau, or this from Dylan Wiliam, and carefully re-reading his excellent book Embedding Formative Assessment. And hundreds of other little learning steps to put it together.

So now when I down and review exit slips I confidently stack up and push aside all those which are correct and use those that got it wrong to guide how I think about the class.

I wish he was there when I write Hinge Questions

src: Banthapedia

Hinge Questions.

In case it wasn’t clear from the motley collection of posts on this I’ve thrown together, I freakin’ love Hinge Questions. But they kind of fall into the formative assessment trap that exit slips do.

Student’s getting it right tells you much less than when they get it wrong. Which is why I find they take so long to write. I want to get the closest possible thing to semi-density as I can so I can make the best possible guess at what the student was thinking when they got the wrong answer.

src: Analyzing diagnostic items: What makes a student response interpretable?

src: Analyzing diagnostic items:
What makes a student response interpretable?

Which is why they are so hard, why they take so much time and why we often see the reverse – where we are only interested in the correct answer, and we collect that data and deal with those that got it wrong as one group.

Posted in Assessment, Classroom, General Maths Thoughts, Pedagogy, Something to work on | Leave a comment

Sorry, your qualification isn’t good enough anymore

So this evening I was talking to a secondary teacher friend about many things, but among those was the general uncertainty about GCSE changes, what constitutes a ‘good’ GCSE, conditions of funding in Sixth Form and the like.

Then it hit me.

There are going to be literally hundreds of thousands of young people with worthless qualifications.

And I’m not meaning a “oh your C grade isn’t really up to the standard of an old C Grade and more” kind of worthless. I mean the directly comparable this isn’t the required standard any more worthless.

Because there will be Student X who get a grade 4 after leaving secondary in 2017, or 2018. Great, well done student X, the world is your oyster. You have achieved the minimum standard in Maths. You can go study English at Sixth form, and Politics and History and go and get your 1st at university and apply for a job. And see the words:

GCSE Grade 5 in Maths required.

Because now the government says this is the minimum standard.

Poor student X you think, but hey, they have a degree! I’m sure any employer worth their salt will consider that to be more important than some GCSE from years back. And maybe thats the case. Maybe. But tell that to the History or Art graduates from the early 2000s who had to take extra Maths courses to be teachers.

What about Student? Student Y works really hard in 2018 but doesn’t get her 4, she in fact gets a 3. But she has decent results elsewhere and gets into a local college on a BTEC programme. They put her through GCSE even if she doesn’t want to, because its a condition of funding. Student Y is  late bloomer and she pulls it off! she gets a 5. Life is good and just. The hard working are rewarded. In fact she now has a better grade than her friend, Student Z, who has a 4 from school. They want to apply for apprenticeships in 2020 after getting their BTECs and Student Z is left in the cold as he doesn’t have the 5.

Because now the government says this is the minimum standard.

What about Student Q. Student Q takes GCSE in 2017 and gets a 4. She looks ahead and realises that the standard will go up by the time she has finished uni and so asks if she can retake her GCSE. Turns out she can’t, because she has the minimum and there’s no funding for retaking a level 2 when you already meet the minimum. So she struggles through a Level 3 Maths course for a year and fails. The content is too much. All this algebra she has never seen before because it was on Higher tier and she entered for Foundation. Does she try again in the second year?

What. A. Mess.

Not sure of an answer, but does anyone else feel like this has been overlooked in the mess that GCSE reform has been?

Posted in Assessment, General Maths Thoughts | Leave a comment

Some conversations.

*Any resemblance to a specific individual is unintentional. Any resemblance of traits of a group of people is intentional.

Manager: This is the most important thing to improve teaching and learning throughout this year!

Teacher: Can I have some time put aside to do it?

Manager: No. But this is the most important thing.

Some time passes

Manager: This is the priority for improvement going forward!

Teacher: Can I have some time put aside to do this?

Manager: No, but this is the most important thing.

Some more time passes

Manager: This is the best way to improve your teaching!

Teacher: Can I have some time put aside to do that, or remove some of the other things?

Manager: No, but this is the most important thing

The results arrive

Manager: Why didn’t you do the important thing I told you to do? If you had, your results would be better

Teacher: Which important thing?

Manager: The most important thing.

Teacher: OK, well can I have some time put aside to do this next year?

Manager: No, you need to prioritise your time so you get the most important thing done.


Posted in Not Maths, Pedagogy | 1 Comment

BREAKING NEWS: Good, fun not always synonyms.

People like bad movies. It’s true. I do as well. I love Starship Troopers, but its a terrible film. It’s cheesy, the acting is bad, the dialogue is poor in places and frankly its totally ridiculous.

It’s also incredibly enjoyable (for me). Another recent example is Pacific Rim. It’s a ridiculous premise, the storyline is outrageous and the characters are, well, somewhat one dimensional. I’d watch it again in a heartbeat because it was a thoroughly joyful 131mins.

There are also films that are critically acclaimed, by many measures among the best, that I really don’t enjoy. As an example; Amelie.

Unfortunately I consistently find that many people couple ‘good’ and ‘enjoyable’ in their heads. If I say a movie wasn’t good, people assume I’m tell them it’s unenjoyable, or that they shouldn’t be allowed to enjoy it, or that somehow I’m criticizing them personally.

The converse is also true. I don’t like opera. I don’t enjoy it. It doesn’t mean that somehow the talent of operatic singers or composers is diminished or that they haven’t achieved something good. It just means I didn’t enjoy it.


So what does this have to do with teaching!?


Well, I have a student teacher in one of my classes and she was beating herself up that the students didn’t all enjoy the lesson. She was worried her lesson wasn’t good because of this. My argument: the students learned, they worked hard on something challenging. Your job is to help them learn, not entertain them. If they enjoy it, then bonus. But if they enjoy the lesson but don’t learn anything? Well you might have well put a DVD on for 70mins.




It’s incredibly frustrating that teacher training, INSET, lesson observations are pushing the ‘fun’, when frankly, I feel like it’s a terrible measure of whether a lesson is good.


Posted in Classroom, Not Maths, Pedagogy | 3 Comments


Something for consideration:

Every time you ask a teacher to complete another piece of paperwork without taking something away, a bit of goodwill dies because I already find it hard to find my mouse under all the paper you give me.

Every time you add a data collection point in the year without taking something away, a bit of goodwill dies, because I already have to do 3 entries per student per collection point and that many clicks is horrible.

Every time you add something that’s ‘just 5mins per student’, a bit of goodwill dies, because I have almost 100 students and just 5mins adds up fast.

Every time you change a policy without consulting the people it will impact, a bit of goodwill dies, because I want my opinion to be respected, just like you do.

Every time you introduce or move a deadline without warning, a bit of goodwill dies, because I plan my time according to what needs to be done.

Every time you tell me ‘what Ofsted wants’ a bit of goodwill dies, especially when I know you’re mistaken.

Every time a concern about a student comes back as ‘what are YOU going to do about it’ a bit of goodwill dies, because If I could do something, I would already have done so.

So don’t be surprised when I don’t jump to volunteer any more.


Posted in Not Maths | 1 Comment

By Hand

I love Desmos, I love graphing packages. I even like TI-8x graphic calculators (Even the old, old TI-82s with dodgy screen contrast).

But sometimes it needs to be graphed by hand. Sharp pencils. Accurate marks. Slow, deliberate, calculation of points.


Because there’s something about realising that when you plot sin(x) and cos(x) they have the same value at x=45 that comes from actually drawing it. Or that something horrible and frightening and wonderful is happening as you approach tan(90). Or that cosec(x) and sec(x) look totally weird but make sense when you try to make a table of values and compare to sin(x) and cos(x).

Because in the end, if you haven’t drawn it accurately and had your hand try to make the shape, what hope do you have of sketching or visualising?

Because in the end, ‘I drew it on my graphic calculator’ won’t earn you marks.

Maybe it’s blasphemy. But tomorrow we will sharpen our pencils, fire up our scientific calculators and draw some goddamn trig functions. And, since I’m in a bit of a mood and I haven’t finished my tea, I’ll fight anyone who tells me I’m wrong.

Enjoy the smell of pencil shavings.

Posted in Classroom, General Maths Thoughts, Lessons, Pedagogy | 3 Comments

The Dream Crusher

Enrolment week always seems so hard in a Sixth Form College. It should be a time of excitement, fresh faced enthusiastic new students and positivity for the year ahead.

Then, as the week goes on the appointments get trickier and trickier. The conversations have less and less “Of course you can study that” and more and more “well, unfortunately you didn’t do as well as you had hoped so that isn’t right for you, instead why not consider this…”

It’s the hardest thing to have to tell a student that they won’t be a vet/doctor/engineer/architect/whatever else they always wanted, that they can’t even take the subjects they wanted because they missed the grade, because the school over predicted, they were ill on the day of the exam, they lost a teacher half way through the year or any of the other hundreds of reasons.

Maybe this year there have just been more students with unrealistic aspirations, but this year, more than before, I have felt like there’s a side to the Sixth Form Tutor that no one talks about, the part of you that has to turn a child’s unrealistic dream into something achievable, challenging and interesting so that they can be successful.

Sometimes we have to be the Dream Crushers. And it’s the right thing to do.

Posted in Assessment, Not Maths, Pedagogy | 1 Comment