BETT 2014

I’ve followed the BETT story of many #edchatie teachers on Twitter over the past few years jealously.  It never seemed to work out that I too could go – that is until this year.  Anyone who had previously been, extolled the virtues of going to BETT, and I wondered if it could possibly live up to the hype.  Having now seen it for myself, I can categorically state that it did! BETT runs over four days and I went for the last two – the Friday which included a TeachMeet and the Saturday.


I had done a little bit of preparation before making the trip but it was of the download the app and the material variety rather than actually engaging with what was available.  On the Thursday night I had a look at the talks and made a rough plan of what talks I wanted to see over the following few days.  I figured that from an exhibitor point of view I would just wait and see what caught my eye.  It turned out that I was completely unprepared for the wide variety of exhibitors that were at BETT.  There was something for everyone, but I have to admit that I found the sheer volume a bit overwhelming, particularly on the Friday.  As a result I made the decision to focus almost entirely on the talks.  There was plenty to choose from with more than 50 talks on Friday alone!

First up for me was Arvin Ross talking about Digital Storytelling.  Arvin gave a very engaging talk and shared his pick of the best apps to help with Storytelling


The Puppet Pals app also got a mention as a great app for Story telling.

Next choice for me was Ed Cooke talking about memory techniques and how they can be used to super power student learning.  What struck me was how Ed got us all to remember 20 seemingly unrelated objects by weaving them into a story.  Seeing how we remembered the items both backwards and forwards was a revelation.  The final surprise was revealed when Ed told us that the 20 objects were in fact elements from the Periodic Table (the balloon representing Helium etc.).  Check out for more information.

At lunchtime I decided to go to the Flipped Learning session in the main arena.  The session was given by Aaron Sams and Jon Bergmann, co-founders of the Flipped Classroom.  I’ve been toying with the idea of introducing some aspects of flipped learning so it was great to hear about how others have made it work and what their students have gained from it.  One of my takeaways from this session, was that the Flipped Classroom does not dehumanise the classroom, but rather that it places the teacher even more at the centre of the class  as the focus has changed.  The very strong message was the importance of relationships in the classroom, a point that was reinforced in the drawings that were to be found on the outside of the BETT arena


After a quick bite to eat it was time to go to Doug Belshaw’s masterclass on improving digital literacy among staff and students.  What I loved about Doug’s talk was that it was more of a conversation starter than a masterclass as it prodded us to consider a broad range of literacies as opposed to a single one.


I particularly loved this  proverb


I know which is my preference – what’s yours?


My final session of the day was Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ talk – ‘Beyond the Limits’. It was billed as an Inspirational Keynote and boy did it deliver!  Hearing Sir Ranulph recount his tales of crossing both the Artic and the Antartic was active learning at it’s very best.  It’s great to get a chance to hear people of this calibre speak at events like this.  I love to hear people from outside the educational domain speak at educational events as they often have a different perspective which challenges up to think differently.  


By this stage it was time for me to do a talk of my own.  I had been asked to speak at the OCR stand about CoderDojo with Mags Amond.  I wasn’t sure how it was going to work as it wasn’t a scheduled talk – it was more a case of start talking and hope that people would stop and listen.  It turned out to be a more enjoyable experience than I had imagined – Mags and I worked well together and a good few people stopped and listened.

The rest of Friday was taken up with the TeachMeet which I’ve previously written about here and the TeachEat, an opportunity to chat and mingle and generally relax after a long, busy day.

First up on Saturday was ‘Learning Science with iPads’ with Ed Walsh.

edwalshI was very interested in the next session ‘Analytical and predictive primary math teaching in Finland.  Finland is often held up as an exemplar regarding education so I was curious as to what we might find out from this talk.   I was a bit taken aback to find that the same issues around Maths education are to be found there

IMG_8609We heard about the emphasis on autonomy and teacher training that are so central to the Finnish education system but also the issues around integrating ICT into the system


It’s good to get this viewpoint and to see that teachers in many different countries are dealing with similar issues to the ones we face in this country.

IMG_8650One of the last sessions I went to was the Stemettes Hackathon.  It was such an enjoyable session and reminded me a lot of CoderDojo.  I loved how Anne Marie led the hackathon and used the example of making a jam sandwich to demonstrate the concept of an algorithm with the girls who had come to work on developing websites in real time.


The future is safe with these kinds of initiatives …

And so we come to the last session of BETT2014 – ‘The Great Education Debate – can technology ever replace the classroom?’  We heard short presentations from the panelists : Tim Rylands who stole the show in my view, Anne Lise Kjaer, Maggie Philbin, Ian Bauckham and Simon Milner.  I learned a new term from Tim – the elsie as opposed to the selfie.

elsieOne of the ideas that was reinforced during the closing session was the importance of the teacher in the classroom while recognising the power of technology to hook students and to facilitate learning.  It’s good to see that the emphasis on technology in education is entirely about its integration into the classroom, as an aid to teaching and learning, and not about it’s use for it’s own sake.  Plenty of food for thought until next year …

IMG_8654 While I’ve focused in this post on the talks I attended, the most important aspect of attending conferences for me is the opportunity to chat to other educators.   I was fortunate to spend the weekend at BETT in the company of Helen, Bianca, Mags and Kathleen as well as many of the #edchatie folk who made the trip to BETT.  Chatting about what you are hearing and seeing helps to process all of the information that is being thrown in your direction.  I definitely get more from a conference when I get a chance to discuss it with others.  It’s also good to hear about the work going on in classrooms across Ireland and beyond … hearing Bianca talking about “her” kids and the amazing projects that they are working on, hearing Mags and Kathleen talk about the importance of the relationships they have with their students, hearing Helen talk about the success of the How I Learn book all serve to invigorate you in what you are doing in you own classroom.  It’s also amazing to get the chance to catch up with people like Steve Bunce, Doug Belshaw, Helen Keegan, Dughall McCormack, Joe Dale and so many more.  It’s only when you get a chance to reflect on the overall experience of BETT that you begin to realise just how much you get from attending!  I’m looking forward to BETT 2015 already 🙂


Maths Fest 2013

Back in April I was asked to speak at the Irish Mathematics Teachers Association conference which was to take place on Saturday 12th October.  Before I had a chance to talk myself out of it I agreed.  After all it was six months away, I’d have plenty of time to gather my thoughts and it would all be fine in the end wouldn’t it?  Natalie Noone, the National Treasurer of the organisation and the conference organiser mentioned CoderDojo when she asked me to speak so I decided to tie in a few strands that have been blowing in the wind for the past while.  As some of you may know, I completed a Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) module earlier this year where we looked at Learning Theories.  I was very taken by Seymour Papert’s Constructionist Theory , which contends that learning happens most effectively when people construct personally meaningful artefacts.  This is something I see happening at CoderDojo as children and teens learn to code prompted by a desire to create games etc. of interest to them.  This is something I have been keen to bring to my own teaching so my final assessment for the TEL module saw me looking at Robocode, a programming environment which allows the coding of virtual tanks which can then do battle.  I decided to tie the three strands together in my MathsFest presentation.

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Fast forward to Friday October 11th and I find myself at the pre-conference banquet, chatting to some of the other presenters, attendees and exhinitors.  It was a lovely, laid back evening, a perfect pre-cursor to the very busy day ahead.  Natalie and the rest of the team had put together a great programme with a a wide variety of topics and presenters – the only problem was only being able to choose one presentation in each slot!  I was lucky to have my slot on in the morning session as I was nervous about how it would go.  My presentation had come together in a way that I was happy with, but I couldn’t help but be nervous, as my first trip to MathsFest had me speaking there, so I wasn’t sure if I’d pitched it correctly.   In the first time slot I went between two sessions – Catherine Kierans Autograph demonstration and Dr. Maria Meehan’s talk on  research about promoting conceptual understanding in the Maths classroom.  Catherine’s session was very hands on and practical and Maria’s session provided plenty of food for thought.  I particularly loved the idea of ‘convince yourself, convince a friend, convince an enemy’.  Next up was my session on ‘Coderdojo, Constructionism and Maths’.  My presentation can be found here.   Next up for me was Dr. Ailish Hannigan’s session on mathematical thinking vs. statistical thinking.   It’s interesting that traditionally strong maths students may struggle with statistical thinking and vice versa.  I’ve often seen this as students who may struggle in other areas of Maths have a keen intuition when it comes to Statistics.  The other takeaway from Ailish’s talk was the importance of getting students to collect their own data.

Next up was lunch and it was lovely to catch up with Paudie Scanlon (the driving force behind the Irish Maths Teachers Google+ community).   After lunch I found myself in James Grime’s talk on Alan Turing and the Enigma Machine.  As we started to look at some of the most basic cipher systems, I was transported back more than a  few years as my undergrad final year thesis was on the subject of the Playfair Cipher system.  James’s entertaining talk has rekindled a latent interest that I’m looking forward to developing.

The Enigma Machine at Maths Fest

The Enigma Machine at Maths Fest

The next session found me in Audrey Byrne’s talk on Digital Literacies.  Her research on the topic with 15-17 year olds offered many insights which again illustrates the point that


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The really key point of Audrey’s talk was the need to listen to what students have to say, as opposed to thinking we know what they want and what works for them.

The final session of a busy day can be hard to present at but I have to say that Dr. Julie O’Donovan’s ‘Tale about functions’ was the perfect end to what was a very enjoyable day.  I loved the fact that we were greeted with the question

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on entering the room.  It was refreshing to see functions front an centre like that 🙂

I wondered about how much there would be from me at a conference aimed at second level Maths teachers but I needn’t have worried.  There was plenty of food for thought for anyone involved in teaching Maths, regardless of the level.  Well done to Natalie Noone, the dynamo behind MathsFest, and her team.  I’m already looking forward to MathsFest 2014 🙂

Check out some of the tweets from Mathsfest here.   I’m hoping that there will be more tweeting Maths teachers at MathsFest 2014.

How to learn Math part 2

Now that I’ve completed Jo Boaler’s ‘How to learn Math’ MOOC, I thought I’d share some more of the concepts which particularly caught my attention as I worked though the material, and those that have remained with me since I finished.

One of the sections in the course was Number Sense.  In this section Jo shared the view that an ease with numbers is a very good foundation on which to build the more complex maths concepts.  This is a view that I have long held myself.   One of  the most enlightening exercises that Jo has shared on the course relates to number sense.  She shared an example of a ‘Math Talk’ where students were given a calculation to do without a pen and paper or a calculator.  They had to come up with an answer and then share how they came up with that answer.  The calculation they were given was 18 x 5. Some of their workings are as follows:

  1. 18 x 2 = 36 : 36 x 2 = 72 : 72 + 18 = 90
  2. 18 / 2 = 9 : 9 x 5 = 45 : 45 + 45 = 90
  3. 5 x 10 + 5 x 8 = 50 + 40 = 90
  4. 18 / 2 = 9 : 9 x 10 = 90
  5. 20 x 5 – 2 x 5 = 100 – 10 = 90

Others shared variations of these solutions.  For me the really important part came in the discussion around the way the students came up with their solution.  Being aware of the various ways of performing these calculations, and talking them through with the group, really showed a flexibility in Maths that many don’t see.  Having to really explore what you do and why, helps students to gain a deeper understanding of the concepts.   When asked about their perceptions around Maths, many people mention an inflexibility, and a formulaic way of approaching it, that is as a result of the Maths we teach, and the way we teach it.  I often find that students zone in on “the” way to solve a problem when in fact there are many different ways to get to the solution.  I have always tried to help students to develop their intuition around Maths and to hone their number sense and the course has helped me to refocus my efforts on this in my classes.

Helping students to discover maths by exploration is another area that Jo probed in quite a lot of detail through the course.  This is an area that I myself struggle with.  It can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you must cover the concepts first before introducing the contexts in which those concepts can be used.  This idea of learning through exploration is one of the most powerful aspects of CoderDojo and it is one of the areas where I think the formal education system can learn from Dojo.

It’s been a few weeks since I finished the course and it has had an impact on my teaching in many subtle ways.  I love how it has reinforced some ideas for me and how it has made me rethink so many more.


My find of the summer

The Bedside Book of AlgebraI stumbled across ‘The Bedside Book of Algebra’ in a bookshop in Killarney over the summer and have loved dipping into it over the past few weeks.  It’s a lovely combinations of a look at some of the concepts, the mathematicians who developed them and some applications.   Here’s a sneak peak at the introduction to the six chapters in the book.

Algebra basics

Ancient Greece

Egypt, India and Persia

The Italian Connection

Post Renaissance Europe

Money and Privacy

‘The Bedside book of Algebra’ has been the perfect accompaniment to Jo Boaler’s How to Learn Math course over the past few weeks.  I can see myself returning to both the book and the ideas presented in the course over the coming months and years.

How to learn Math

I’m taking Jo Boaler’s How to Learn Math MOOC.  This course is for teachers and parents and aims to give ideas to help to change the relationship students have with Maths.  I have been covering the material over the past 2 weeks and I’m really enjoying it. The course is very well structured.  There are 8 different sections covering

  1. Introduction
  2. Maths and Mindset
  3. Mistakes and Persistence
  4. Teaching for a growth mindset
  5. Conceptual Learning – Number Sense
  6. Conceptual Learning – Connections, Representations, Questions
  7. Appreciating Algebra
  8. Going from this course to a new Mathematical Future

In each section there are a number of videos with Jo sharing some research, thoughts and examples with input from others as appropriate. After most of the videos we are asked to share our thoughts on what we have heard or seen.  Some of these submissions are peer assessed.

So far I have completed five of the eight sections and there are a few things that have really grabbed my attention.  Firstly, the importance of fostering a growth mindset in our children. Carol Dweck shares her ideas on mindset as follows

“In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.”

 “Stanford University’s Carol Dweck on the Growth Mindset and Education” 2012-06-19.

The fixed mindset really cuts to the heart of what so many feel about Maths.  People are either good at it or they’re not and if you’re not there’s very little you can do about it.   What surprised me the most is that the idea was put forward that this fixed mindset does as much damage to the students who are seen as ‘good at maths’ as it often holds them back from challenging themselves due to a fear of failing.

This brings me nicely to the next idea that has really grabbed me – the idea that it’s ok to make mistakes.  This is something I have fostered over my teaching career as I believe that really powerful learning can happen when mistakes are made and resolved.  This concept has really been emphasised in the course so far.

The final thing that has really grabbed me so far is the importance of getting students to ‘make sense’ of the Maths.  It’s not enough to apply the rule without having an understanding of what you are doing and what it achieves.  This is something i feel strongly about as I really don’t see how students benefit from blindly applying formulae that they have no understanding of.  There are many ways of doing this but most center around getting students to work together and to share strategies for working through problems.  This gives students an opportunity to see other perspectives and to see the inherent flexibility in Maths which is so often suppressed.

I am really looking forward to completing this course as it has got me thinking about how I can do things differently in my classes as I start the new academic year in the next few weeks.

ESAI conference


About 2 months ago Aisling Leavy, a mentor at CoderDojo Limerick, asked me if I’d be interested in submitting a proposal for a symposium at the Educational Studies Association of Ireland Conference with her and some others.   The theme of the symposium was “Teaching children to code”.  Aisling lectures in Mary Immaculate College, a college which offers a wide range of programmes in Education and the Liberal Arts.  She has been involved in a Project where some of her pre service teachers were teaching Scratch to children in a number of local primary schools.  Aisling’s plan was that she would present with her colleague Rory McGann, who was also involved in the project,  Clare McInerney from Lero, the Irish software engineering research centre, would present on their initiatives to get children coding and Eugene McDonough and I would present on our experiences as mentors in the Limerick CoderDojo.  Before I gave myself a chance to think about it I decided to agree.


Eugene and I chatted about how we might structure our presentation and we decided that letting the children tell their owm story was the best way forward so that’s what we did.  We did some interviews with the ninja’s and with one of the mum’s and built our presentation around that.  I really enjoyed presenting with Aisling, Rory, Clare and Eugene.  It was heartening to see so many crossovers in our presentations, which was unplanned, but suggests the beginnings of a synchronicity around coding in Irish education.  We all told of the joy that children find in coding.  My favourite quote from the session was from Rory and Aisling’s presentation where one of the children in their project said something like “the teacher could have been asleep at the top of the class and we wouldn’t have noticed”.

I had never presented in a symposium before but I really liked it.  A symposium is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “a conference or meeting to discuss a particular subject”.  As a presenter I liked the fact that there was safety in numbers 🙂  As a result of this positive experience I’m thinking of convening some symposia at the ICT in Education conference this year.  I think it might encourage some teachers who might be hesitant to share what they do in their classrooms.

As well as our session, I also attended a number of other sessions at the conference.  I really enjoyed the format.  The sessions were generally one and a half hours in duration with a number of themed parallel sessions in each.  Within each session there were 3 or 4 presentations.  The two sessions that I attended on Friday were both very thought provoking.  The ‘Initial Teacher Education’ session examined topics such as the ‘Entry requirements for Initial Teacher Education’ and the challenges for Initial Teacher Education as we adjust to Project Maths.  As a Maths educator I was particularly interested in the session on Project Maths.  Hearing Miriam Liston and Olivia Fitzmaurice, talking about the difficulties that their pre service teachers had, with explaining the foundation knowledge that they would ultimately be teaching, outlined the significant chasm that exists between understanding advanced Maths concepts and being able to teach Maths.  The University of Limerick have introduced a ‘Mathematical thinking’ module which allows their pre service student teachers to focus on key concepts such as logs and indices, fractions, integers, equations and inequalities, formulae, trigonometry and statistics.  One of the students comments “It’s not that it’s hard, it’s just that we’ve never been asked to think before” is very telling in my opinion.  You can read my thoughts on this tension between mathematical ability and the ability to teach Maths in my previous post on this topic.

Science and Mathematics Education session

I also attended the ‘Science and Mathematics Education’ session.  There was a couple of common threads running through many of the presentations – the ideas of communities of practice and inquiry based learning.  These threads were woven through Joanne, Aoibhinn and Maeve’s presentations. With the focus changing at second level to a more application and real world context for subjects like Maths and Science there will be an increased reliance on teachers both within one’s own school and also in the broader educational community.

I also found Úna’s presentation on increasing the percentage of students achieving at the highest levels of Maths very interesting.  Her PhD research involves looking at the correlation between standard test results at Primary School and the progress of those students in their future studies in Maths as they continued through secondary school.  She has found a consistency between the achievement of students at Junior Cert with reference to their Primary school standard test results but this does not carry through to Leaving Cert.  I’m looking forward to hearing more from the ongoing research from those who presented at theses sessions.

Why Maths Matters

On Friday 8th of March I attended the ‘Why Maths Matters‘ conference in University of Limerick.  The day was about ‘taking stock, examining practice and developing policy’. At the start of the conference Sean Sherlock TD reminded us of the Thomas Davis quote “educate that you may be free”.  There were a few threads which were begun by Sean and picked up by many speakers throughout the day.  My take away messages from the conference were the importance of having a population who recognise the importance of Maths in the world around them and the need for a coordinated conversation about Maths.

mar8thProfessor Bill Barton from Auckland University spoke at length about the ‘Maths problem’.  The main thrust of his presentation was that there is no easy fix to the problem but that an emphasis on problem solving, abstraction, generalisation and logical reasoning is a step in the right direction.  He also spoke about the importance of students confidence around Maths and suggested that at certain times this might be more important than Maths competence.  Bill emphasised how it is ‘no longer acceptable for people to say I can’t do Maths’ and the  importance of ‘a population who understands the power and recognises the opportunities provided by mathematical analysis’.  As a mathematician and educator I also see these two areas as of critical importance.  The social acceptability that people are ‘not good’ at Maths, and the disconnection that people feel from the Maths they learn and the Maths they use in the world around them, prompted me to write a blog post over a year ago, one of my most popular posts and the post that prompted the most discussion.

During the day we heard from many speakers about the importance of starting early to engage students in Mathematical thinking, the gender divide in Irish education, the importance of empowering teachers,  recent developments in Maths Education in Ireland and the Mallow community initiative to research and pilot initiatives and developments in the teaching of mathematics and science.

Bill Lynch from the NCCA spoke about the rollout of the new Project Maths sylabus.  The early indications are good notwithstanding some issues that need to be ironed out.  Evidence from the pilot schools suggests an increase in student engagement with Maths and a changing role for the teacher in the classroom.  Challenges include the time needed to cover the syllabus and difficulties around solving unfamiliar problems.  There has been a lot of discussion around the introduction of Project Maths over the past few years.  As with any significant change like this there will be issues but I personally think that it is a step in the right direction.  I know that’s easy for me to say because I’m not dealing directly with the impact of the curriculum but I think that with some adjustment Project Maths can deliver what was intended.

The conference concluded with a very entertaining and engaging presentation by Elizabeth Oldham from Trinity followed by a panel discussion.  Elizabeth took us through curricula changes over the past 50 years both in Ireland and elsewhere.  She distinguished between the intended, implemented and attained curricula and urged caution when comparing the intentions of one curriculum with the implementation of a previous one.  Again the issue of lack of sufficient time to cover the syllabus came up in relation to Project Maths.  On a related topic Elizabeth drew our attention to the fact that as a nation our recommended minimum time for Maths in schools is less than most other European countries.  As with all things we must live with the consequences of our actions in this regard.

Both Bill Barton and Elizabeth Oldham spoke about cross national studies like PISA and TIMSS.  I’ll leave you with Elizabeth’s views ‘these studies not only compare the incomparable, they rationalise the irrational!’.