New things follow-up

On Monday I had my first Year 9 lesson since introducing New Things Thursday last week. While I’d had a few positive reactions, I was still a little nervous about how the class felt about the whole thing. As it turned out, they were asking if we could do New Things, and were disappointed that they’re going to be away on Thursday. I was also disappointed, so I’d already decided to New Things on Monday anyway 🙂

As I put my New Things slide up on the IWB, my students were immediately excited about being able to share their new things – well, most of them were. It was only then that I realised two of my students were away last Thursday and had absolutely no idea what was going on. Oops. I told them to just go with it and found a gap in the conversation to explain it all to them.

Proving Pythagoras’ Theorem

Last week explained Pythagoras’ Theorem, and while I mentioned that theorem’s should be proven, I’d only hinted that the proof was still to come. This was Monday’s task. Like last time, we’d do this with a “New Things Page”.

I wanted to make the proof as simple to follow as possible. I also decided to use cutting and pasting of triangles and squares rather than just drawing diagrams – I hoped to help the kinaesthetic learners as well as the visual ones, and make it obvious that all the triangles are the same. The end result (well, my version of it) is below:

Proving Pythagoras' Theorem - new things page

(I tacked on the algebra proof after the class – it’s my personal favourite proof, but we haven’t covered enough algebra yet for me to teach it. Also, I think my arty skills have improved since last time!)

The key point that makes the proof work is realising that the areas not covered by the triangles are the same on both large squares. When I asked the class which area was bigger, they debated with each other for a few moments before declaring it a stupid question because they were the same. (Hooray!)

I’m pretty keen to make New Things Thursday a permanent feature, but I’d like to see if the class stays enthusiastic about it once it’s, well, not a new thing. I asked a few students if they thought it was a good idea or if they thought I’d gone crazy. “Both,” was the answer. I guess that’s good?


Half time score update

One of the features of my Maths Methods classes over the last few years has been the scoreboard, for a game that no-one is entirely sure of the rules for. Well, there are some rules:

  • If I make a mistake on the board and they spot it before I correct it myself, the class gets a point.
  • If they claim I made a mistake when I didn’t, I get a point.
  • I’m the only one who’s allowed to update the scoreboard (otherwise I get a point).
  • Last year they were allowed to claim one ‘cake-point’ per week (that’s exactly what it sounds like: they get a point if they bring a cake to class). Honestly, I don’t mind it when they score this way 🙂

Plus there’s a whole heap of silly rules that tend to get made up on the spot, by both them and myself.

It’s a silly little thing we do which keeps them paying attention and keeps me on my toes. I’d like to say I planned it that way, but the game sort of just developed by itself. At the end of each year the outgoing class seems to tell the next year’s class about the game, so they claim points from me before I’ve even mentioned it.

The first year we did it, I won comprehensively. It was a tie last year (though I may have bent the rules a fair bit to catch up). This year, I think I’m in trouble.

As Unit 3 ended on Friday and Unit 4 starts this week. So it’s half time at the moment. The scoring’s been pretty slow this year – they’re fairly conservative with their challenges and aren’t willing to give up anything easily. Unfortunately for me, that strategy seems to be working:

Half time scoreboard

Oh well. Everyone loves a good comeback.


Girls in maths

I’ve been trying to write this post for a while. I had a student ask me a question one day that’s been troubling me ever since. I’ve put off writing about it until I could come up with an answer I’d be satisfied with, but as that hasn’t happened yet, I’m just going to post what I’ve got so far and hope something meaningful results.

Anyway, the question was this:

Why are 75% of students who do Specialist Maths male?

My answer at the time can basically be paraphrased as “Um, er, yeah, I don’t know?” I’m not sure where she got that statistic from, but according to this document it was about 66% male students in 2013. Certainly less than 75%, but in no way less concerning. This can be compared to Maths Methods with 58% male students, and Further Maths with 52% female students. (If you’re confused right now, I’ve tried to explain the VCE maths subjects below.)

We have a situation where girls are willing to do maths (as evidenced by Further Maths), but are not willing to attempt the more difficult subjects. I personally have seen a number of girls who I’ve believed to be strong maths students decide that it would be too hard to attempt the harder subjects – a decision some later regret when it affects their ability to get into science courses at university.

I just realised that I might be working from an assumption that not everyone agrees with, so let me spell it out clearly so you know where I coming from: This is not a good thing. This tells me there are female students who are missing out on opportunities to suceed in maths and science, not because of their ability but because of what the world around them is telling them they can do. And if students (male or female) are missing out on opportunities they should have, that is a failure in the way we are educating them.

This was where I was hoping to have a lightning bolt of inspiration and have something important to say, but all can think of is more questions.

Where does this stereotype that “girls are bad at maths” come from? There is an undeniable perception in our world that “boys are just better suited to thinking mathematically than girls”, despite the fact that I’ve never seen any real evidence suggesting that. Clearly less female students are choosing to attempt the more challenging maths subjects. The misogynistic view would take this as evidence to support itself, but it’s really a self fulfilling prophesy – if girls are told they can’t suceed in maths, can we expect them to suceed?

Have I, if inadvertently, contributed to this problem at all? Have there been times in the past that I’ve influenced girls away from maths without realising it? I would be horrified if this were true, but I realise that as a male maths teacher I am, in a way, reinforcing the stereotype just by existing. I really think I need to be more aware of the message I give my female students about their ability in maths, and ensure everything I do builds their confidence in their own ability.

What can be done to change this? What can I do in my classroom? What can be done in my school? What can be done in the Victorian education system (and more broadly, the world)?

These are not hypothetical questions. Seriously, if anyone has an answer, please let me and everyone else know.

I’m sorry if you’ve read all that and expected something insightful – I’m still not really sure what point I’m trying to make. But the way I see it, we have a problem at the moment for which there hasn’t been a solution discovered yet. I realise that as a male maths teacher I might not be the most qualified to talk about this. So if someone who actually knows what they’re talking about wants to jump in now, feel free.

xkcd: How it works

For those that don’t know how VCE maths works, we have three subjects in Year 12:

  • Further Mathematics is the easiest of the three – I would hesitate to call it “easy”, but the bar is low enough that any academically minded student should be able to do well in it, even if maths isn’t their strong suit. At my school this subject tends to have the second highest enrollment in Year 12 (behind English, which is compulsory).
  • Mathematical Methods introduces a much more formal treatment of maths, and focusses on algebra and functions, introductory calculus, and probability distributions. This is generally considered a minimum prerequisite for most university STEM type courses.
  • Specialist Mathematics is basically what the name suggests. The enrolments in this subject are much smaller than the others. Most students who do Specialist also tend to do Methods.

New Things Thursday!

So after my last post I started to have a crisis of confidence in what I was planning to do. I felt like I oversold my plans a bit too much. What if this is a complete disaster? I’ve kind of committed to blogging about it now!

Thankfully it seemed to go well, and the feedback I got from the students was really positive.

So anyway, introducing…
(drum roll, drawing out the tension, not really a surprise since it’s in the title…)

New Things Thursday Powerpoint slide I used to introduce ‘New Things Thursday’.

So this is the idea – Thursdays are now all about ‘new things’. As I wrote last time, I want to capture the excitement of discovery that I see in maths but seems to go unnoticed by students. By putting the idea that this is something new front and center, I’m hoping I can sidestep that part of a kid’s brain that tells them each lesson is just the same old boring maths.

So I’m putting these rules on myself for Thursdays. That said, I’m completely prepared to break these rules I feel the need to. And given that New Things Thursday is itself a new thing, it may need to change.

Rules for New Things Thursday

  • Each lesson will be about on something new. A new rule, a new concept, a new perspective, whatever. We will still do some revision, and the new content will build on what the students already know, but the ‘new thing’ will be the focus of the lesson.

  • Rather than explicitly telling students the new thing, I will find a way to let them discover it themselves. This will be a challenge, as it will take a lot longer to introduce each idea, but hopefully it leads to more solid understanding from the start.

  • For each ‘new thing’, students will create a ‘new thing page’: a page in their workbooks that summarises the new content. This page will be their main reference to the concept in future lessons.

To set the tone of New Things Thursday, I’m also allowing students a few minutes where they can share with me and the class any ‘new things’ that they’re excited about, which can be whatever they’re interested in and doesn’t even need to relate to maths. (I realised afterwards that I may have subconciously ripped this idea off from Sarah Hagan’s Good Things Mondays, so thanks goes her. Actually, most of elements of New Things Thursday are probably stolen from other bloggers.)

The first New Thing: Pythagoras’ Theorem

Introducing Pythagoras is always an interesting moment; it’s one of those key points where high school maths transitions from being ‘arithmetic’ to ‘mathematics’, and might even be the first time students hear the word ‘theorem’.

The statement of rule (a2 + b2 = c2) is so simple to students that they don’t always recognise the significance of it, and unfortunately it is often only treated as a tool for calculating lengths. I think our aim should be to helps students realise the surprising elegance of the theorem, the mathematical truth it reveals.

We started the lesson talking about square numbers and I asked why they were called ‘square’ numbers. It took a little prompting, but they realised that they relate to the area of squares. I had them list all of them from 12 to 202, which didn’t take too long. Once they had their lists, I pointed out that 144 + 25 = 169, or 122 + 52 = 132.

I asked if they could find any more combinations like it, and gave them a few minutes in groups to see how many they could find. (I deliberately didn’t use 32 + 42 = 52 as my example so they would have an easier one to find.) A few students asked me whether the ones they’d found were correct. I told them they didn’t need to check with me – they could check themselves using their calculator.

I then listed the combinations on the whiteboard. Some had found up to 82 + 152 = 172. Some had realised that many were multiples of 32 + 42 = 52. (YES!) I had each student choose one equation from the board, and asked them to cut out three squares representing the numbers in their equation from grid paper that I had handed out.

Notice that so far I have not mentioned triangles or right-angles, or even the name Pythagoras. That was the secret truth that I wanted my students to discover.

I asked them to create a triangle by using the edges of their squares. What sort of triangle was it? It turned out they all had right angle triangles!

It was at this point that I finally put up some notes about Pythagoras’ theorem, and had them create their new things page. I’d already prepared one myself in case any students didn’t know what to put on theirs:

My new thing page! Sorry I'm not that artistic...

Thankfully a lot of of the pages the class made looked a lot better than mine. Some students even decided to create a ‘new things’ section in their book so it would be easier to look up in the future.

I pointed out that though we’d discovered this pattern, it’s not really a theorem until we prove it – which hopefully will happen next lesson.

Unfortunately, that was the last Thursday I’ll have them this term – they have an excursion next week and I have one the week after. But I think I’ve built some enthusiasm from the class for ‘new things’, and set a pattern we can start in earnest next term. And anyway, there’s no reason I can’t do this:

New things Friday!


New things

New things are awesome. New things get people excited. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of discovery or of experiencing something different. Just off the top of my head I can think of these things that are new for me in the last 6 months, that had/have me excited:

  • I started bike riding! (and now I’m at least moderately fit!)
  • I bought a Surface Pro 2! (I’m a gadget nerd, sorry)
  • I grew a beard! (though I’m thinking it’s time for it to go)
  • I started this blog! (woo!)

I’m sure there’s some psychological explanation as to why the human mind likes to explore the new and different, but to me it can be simply stated as this: New things are awesome!

Isn’t teaching all about new things? Isn’t it about giving students new ideas, new ways to think about the world, new perspectives on what they thought they already knew? Giving students the tools to create their own new things?

So here’s the big question: How do we get students excited about the new things we’re teaching them?

So many students enter our classrooms not expecting anything exciting. It wouldn’t be unusual to hear a student describe our lessons as the “same old boring maths”. It would be unreasonable for me to expect my students to be as excited about maths as I am, but I am teaching them new things. Surely I can get them a little bit excited about that?

I don’t have an answer, but I might have an idea. This week I plan to begin a unit on Pythagoras’ Theorem with my Year 9 class. Importantly, this will be the first time they’ve ever seen it. I have an opportunity to introduce a completely new thing to them. My aim is to make it clear to the class that this is a new thing, a new way to see the world, a new secret that’s been hiding in front of them ever since they learned what a triangle is.

Will my entire class be forever excited about maths from one lesson? Of course not, and I’m under no illusions of that either. Will a few of my students be a little more interested as a result? Maybe. I think it’s worth a try.

I’m not quite prepared to share my ideas yet – I’m not even convinced my students will go for it (though if any class is going to, it’s probably this one). Our next lesson is on Thursday, so hopefully I’ll share more after then.