The future of education?

Since I changed career to become a maths teacher a number of ‘big questions’ have repeatedly circled around my thoughts. I regularly question how efficient our ‘traditional’ teaching methods are, expecting 30 kids to sit quietly and absorb information from a presentation which aspires to keep the ‘high-fliers’ interested whilst simultaneously keeping the lower-achievers on board.

My own teacher-training experience was focussed on digressing from the traditional ‘chalk-and-talk’ methods, using ‘card sort’ activities, ‘sometimes-always-never’ tests for mathematical statements and various other techniques to promote higher-order thinking. I have experimented with using these teaching styles and witnessed pupils’ increased conceptual understanding of topics, so long as sufficient time is available to spend on studying the topics at a deeper level.

I try to differentiate the tasks and expected outcomes in my classroom as any teacher does but still usually come away feeling dissatisfied with the time I was able to give pupils at key moments or over-whelmed by the logistical challenge of it.

I am aware of the SMILE Mathematics programme that was frequently used in schools a few decades ago. The “Secondary Mathematics Individualised Learning Experiment” was designed to allow pupils to progress with their learning at their own pace. I still use many of the excellent resources from SMILE which are available for download from the National STEM Centre website. However, from discussing with colleagues who used to teach using the SMILE system, many cite the downsides which range from logistical challenges to low attainment in some ‘types’ of pupils.

The intention of the SMILE system to personalise the learning to the pupils in a manageable way really resonates with me. I do my best but regularly feel that I cannot spread myself widely enough to ‘teach’ the broad range of pupils I have in my class. I concluded these thoughts that what I was trying to achieve was impossible, being in thirty different places at once, and the solution must be in giving pupils resources from which they can teach themselves. I am more a facilitator of learning rather than the fount of all knowledge. I have recently read the excellent book The Four Hour Work Week, where Tim Ferris explains how small business owners often become over-worked by having business systems where all decisions are required to be made by themselves. They become the ‘bottle-neck’ in the functioning of the business. I questioned whether there was a parallel to be made here with me being a ‘bottle-neck’ if my teaching style and classroom environment are such that my pupils can’t learn without my input.

My response to this has recently been the creation of my new website www.MathsMaster.Org. I realised that I could be ‘in thirty places at once’ if I was in front of the pupils who were watching my own videos for topics they are working on. I could also be ‘there’ outside of classroom time whenever the pupil wanted to learn. I don’t want to focus too much on MathsMaster.Org in this post but have been amazed by the early success of the site with pupils commenting “I could watch the video as many times as I needed to until I understood it and I could learn at my own pace” and “my mum could sit with me, watch the video and then if I still didn’t understand, she could help me”. MathsMaster.Org has had over 1000 unique site visits in just it’s first 50 days with only 19 videos currently live.

As excited as I am about MathsMaster.Org and it’s potential for helping pupils with their learning, I am extremely inspired by Salman Khan’s vision for the future of education which takes similar ideas as my own with MathsMaster.Org, but to a whole new level. The following video is a must watch:

There are so many interesting thoughts and questions racing through my mind as a result of this video. It strikes me that Salman’s vision is “SMILE Mathematics” for the 21st century.

Modern pupils are happier infront of a computer screen rather than a textbook. There may be justifiable questions raised about whether this is a good thing but asking those questions won’t change the fact. We must embrace the technology and the format that pupils learn best.  How long will it be until GCSE maths exams are completed electronically rather than on paper? It can’t be long. A recent BBC news article shows they are considering this currently in government.

A significant a repeated criticism of assessing pupils using the online homeworks of the MyMaths system is that it deskills them in their ability of presenting workings that would be awarded marks in their exams. If the exams went electronic would we mind? The Khan Academy system of assessments seems ready to embrace the changes when they inevitably come. The benefit of the Khan Academy system over MyMaths online homeworks being that the topics and their associated assessments are arranged according to the exact previous knowledge required to access a new topic rather than on the rather generic ‘this is level 5’. I think this raises significant questions about the levelling system we currently use in this country which forces us to assign a single level to a child which ‘averages out’ their attainment in four different branches of mathematics. If a child is a ‘high’ achiever in algebra but struggles with data handling is putting them in a middle-achieving class going to be most beneficial to them?

How refreshing to have real data in the video that shows pupils’ progress is non-linear. Lecturer’s on my teacher-training course described learning as an ‘untidy, fragmented, jumpy’ process that ‘changes gear regularly’. In a world where we get phone calls and asked questions if the pupils are not making consistent progress, how interesting to have real data that supports the more fluid, step-wise nature to progress. This is not revolutionary as experienced teachers would testify. Nonetheless I found it fascinating to see that the ‘rabbits did not always win the race’ and that we regularly ‘place the tortoise in a lower set because it made a slow start’ a very thought-provoking point.

Ultimately we as teachers want to spend time helping the pupils in the class who need it most. Anything that prevents us from doing this cannot be beneficial. If a large majority of pupils in your class could learn from watching a video on their laptop does that deskill you as a teacher or free you to spend your valuable time with those who need it most?

Is Salman Khan a visionary or, as I have heard from various long-serving teachers , have we “seen it all before”….?

4 Responses

  1. Joey Till says:

    Hello Mr. Emeny,

    I have enjoyed following you this summer and have learned a lot. I to believe each student needs to go at their own pace. I have designed my website similar to yours, except instead of videos there is just a page of instruction. Check out the project center on the left. Click on the text and it takes you to the informative page, click on the pic and it tells gives the student a project to work on. We do this twice a week and don’t do worksheets and tests. I will never go back to the traditional way, it is amazing to watch the kids grow and have conversations with them about their learning.

    Thanks again for sharing your knowledge.


  2. Interesting stuff – I’ve been wrestling with the same problems and am currently working on the use of “complex instruction” as a possible solution – see part 2 of the following post:

    This has been a fascinating experience so far: seeing pupils beginning to take responsibility for their learning, to not rely on me for answers, to build the vital social skills needed to work effectively as part of a team, and (certainly for some) to invest real emotion in solving a problem themselves.

    I can see that access to learning materials (videos, websites, instruction sheets, dare I say it: text books!), but at their own pace and taken on their own terms, could be a key part of this process. This is not without its dangers though: these learning materials are useful to help in the learning of skills and techniques, but as we know, there is a huge amount more to learning mathematics (or anything else for that matter) and I wonder whether much of that can be gained from sitting in front of a computer?

    “We don’t employ people as knowledge bases, we employ people to actually do things or solve things… I want flexibility and continuous learning, I need team working, and part of team working is communication…” Ray Peacock, research director of Phillips Laboratories. (Excerpt from “The Elephant in the Classroom” by Jo Boaler

    Thanks again for your post, and the wealth of resources and ideas!


  1. 27/09/2011

    […] The future of education? | Great Maths Teaching Ideas Since I changed career to become a maths teacher a number of 'big questions' have repeatedly circled around my thoughts. I regularly questio (The future of education? Source: […]

  2. 02/12/2011

    […] The future of education? | Great Maths Teaching Ideas Since I changed career to become a maths teacher a number of 'big questions' have repeatedly circled around my thoughts. I regularly questio (The future of education? Source: […]

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