Algebra on Demand is HERE – The Khan Academy

Many moons ago myself and Clint Hamada, @chamada, discussed how we could better prepare our middle school students for high school mathematics and other lucky disciplines that use it.  The Algebra unit was finished and we were moving on, as you do, to the next unit. However, you know deep inside as you move on that some had not mastered the skills or the understanding, that more time would have really helped. Pacing and the differentiation of mixed ability classrooms has many challenges. We wanted to reach all the kids and ensure that they felt they had the mathematical muscles for high school.

The key, I believe, is algebra, the language we use to solve problems. Not so much being able to do a ton of problems, but to understand how it works, why the notation is helpful and not actually awful. If kids can do some algebra and apply some correct notation, then problem solving becomes easier. The different strands of mathematics also become more approachable. Those wily letters confuse students and have for an eternity. The little letter x can cause early heart disease.

Salman Khan explains it best, in his TEDtalk, with his bicycle anedote. This is the problem we were trying to fix, the Swiss cheese gaps of maths:

Salman Khan talks about Algebra (and more) on Demand at TED

Salman: “… imagine learning to ride a bicycle, and maybe I give you a lecture ahead of time, and I give you that bicycle for two weeks. And then I come back after two weeks, and I say, “Well, let’s see. You’re having trouble taking left turns. You can’t quite stop. You’re an 80 percent bicyclist. “So I put a big C stamp on your forehead and then I say, “Here’s a unicycle.” But as ridiculous as that sounds, that’s exactly what’s happening in our classrooms right now. And the idea is you fast forward and good students start failing algebra all of a sudden and start failing calculus all of a sudden, despite being smart, despite having good teachers, and it’s usually because they have these Swiss cheese gaps that kept building throughout their foundation. So our model is learn math the way you’d learn anything, like the way you would learn a bicycle. Stay on that bicycle. Fall off that bicycle. Do it as long as necessary until you have mastery. The traditional model, it penalizes you for experimentation and failure, but it does not expect mastery. We encourage you to experiment. We encourage you to failure. But we do expect mastery.”

Watch the TEDtalk to see that The Khan Academy is  now so much more than video tutorials. It has interactive exercises including hints and teachers get detailed data on their students. It’s like the worksheets, tutorials and that was used to create the Algebra on Demand wiki, that my blog is named after, but slicker, prettier, better. It’s really exciting to see it come to life. Salman Khan says that games are coming too, which is all that Algebra on Demand tried to deliver. Clint has set up Google accounts for all of our Grade 8 students and I am using it with my IB Diploma Mathematical Studies students too.

The kids log in with a Google or Facebook account and then nominate a coach. My Diploma kids were first, before our Christmas break, so they have nominated myself and Clint so we can both follow them.  They can nominate their parents and tutors as coaches too.  When our kids move on to the next grade and teacher, they nominate them and the data follows them. Can it move from one Google account to another? I don’t know. This is a question for Salman and Bill Gates and Googlers. When international kids move on, they lose their old school email, so how they keep their data? These emails are the user names we use for Khan Academy Google accounts.

Homework for Grade 8 this week: watch the TEDtalk with their parents.

At first when my Grade 8 kids went on I wanted them to do the exercises on linear equations, but most started at addition, right at the beginning and then followed the concept map routes. Now I am very happy they did that. The Swiss cheese gaps are being filled. An all too common problem in international schools. I went to a lot of schools as a kid across hemispheres and continents. Having a birthday right in the middle of the year meant that changing schools was rarely linear with grade level progression. Grade four was a lot of fun, but there was no maths, grade five didn’t really happen and I missed half of grade six. I still HATE my eight times tables and don’t mind telling my students that. Perhaps I can utilise the Khan Academy too. My boyfriend does. I’ve told other mates about it studying post-graduate courses facing what they believe is the horror of mathematics again. I’ve been a fan of The Khan Academy for some time, but now it’s supersonic with more on the way. Free self paced education for those with access to a computer. Hooray for Salman Khan.  And he used to do evil maths – hedge funds.

Will it replace what we do in the classroom? Impossible. Investigations and projects need a different structure, but I don’t see why we can’t provide a regular time slot to help prepare middle schoolers for high school and beyond.  My work is done and I didn’t even do it. Nice!

Here is the wiki that came about from the early days of Algebra on Demand: 

Now I need a new name for my blog.


So far so good..

The last few lessons have been #AoD doing its thing or more to the point my students doing their thing at their own pace.

As I walked around two classes, of grade 8, in a row every student was engaged and working well. The last two lessons of the day. They did their own brain break and two kids made a new one to kick off the lesson and then they all got down to it. All of them were ready to try new problems having watched some tutorials for homework

It’s early days and keeping this momentum going will be one of the challenges ahead. Watching students helping each other has also been delightful as well as a huge relief. One of my fears was that they’d be too independent. So far so good.

Day Off, Part 2
Day Off, Part 2 by NCM3 on Flickr

Part of my strategy to keep them motivated is to help them to see the mathematics all around them.

I have just  finished polishing off their first summative assessment task. The task was inspired by  Darren Kuropatwa. These two share all they do.

Gone are the autonomous days in our classrooms, which is a grand thing.

Meeting Darren Kuropatwa at the Learning 2.0 in Shanghai during a mathematics and tech unconference was fantastic. Presenting an Unconference  on Using Technology in the Mathematics Classroom was the highlight. I saw my little baby tech ideas, I had brought to Shanghai, on steroids and was so inspired to go back and design #AoD. It’s a work in progress, and it always will be.

One of the things Darren did with his students was to get them to take photos of parabolic objects. “De-constructing” the world around them, as a friend put it when I was gibbering about using tech to teach mathematics. Seeing the mathematics all around them is key I believe.  I have trialled this with my teeny grade 11 (juniors) class with parabolas and gradients. Now after my middle school students learn about gradients, I want them doing the same kind of thing.

I’ll get them to take photos of all sorts of gradients/slopes/steepness and annotate them. We can then build a class slideshow. Every student will do the task when they are ready, but will have to check all of the previous images, so that they don’t repeat any. This has the extra benefit of scaffolding students trying to move ahead. They can see the work and what is expected.



But how to store these images so they continually update? Flickr, and I manage  the folder, or can anyone add to a group we make? Slideshare maybe? Not familiar with it really, but not afraid to try? Wiki for #AoD? It won’t have enough storage… I think I need to be a web guru, or just tweet for help. I think it’s time I taught myself Slideshare. It’ s been on my to-do list and I hear it’s nice and easy.

The second assessment will be done together, so that we work as a class at some points and can discuss what we have learnt face to face. Preview and maybe Students can map out a walk, run, bike ride, scavenger hunt anywhere in the world, and analyse the easy and difficult parts. It can be a place they know well or have been to once or somewhere they’d love to visit.  I did try this with my grade 11s and one of them said “But I only ever went to the hotel or the mall”. We were using their summer holidays. Funny as that was, I think I’ll open up the scope – oooh maybe MARS.

Mathtrain, Foxes and Fireworks

I was so pleased with the lesson on how to use tutorials for learning. It feels like the message got through. I adapted my original lesson plan a little bit too. This blog post isn’t about mathematics. It’s about Learning to Learn, working independently and also getting students to work together and  of course introducing the blended learning environment.

My concern was that students would watch a tutorial and think “Oh, that looks easy”, do a problem and think they had mastered the skill. Not because they are lazy, but because it would feel like they had.

Solution a three part lesson involving video tutorials. These became longer and more complicated.  Instead of doing this as one lesson, I split it over three.

Lesson One:

In the last fifteen minutes of my lesson  I told students to close their tablets (laptops) and to get ready to watch a video on a nifty way to do long multiplication. Some students recognised it as Napier’s Bones. The video comes from the crew at When it was done I put a long multiplication problem on the board and said “Do it, and you must use the method you just watched”. 

A variety of things happened. Some got right down to it. Some had a minor panic and then asked others for help. Some asked to see the video again. They all achieved. The video didn’t discuss how to carry when the sum of the diagonal is greater than nine, so they worked that out and some remembered from years before.

Then I showed the how to make an origami fox using a video from Youtube,

and said “Oh dear, we’ve run out of time. We’ll do this tomorrow”. I didnt’ say, we wouldn’t watch the video again.
Lesson Two:

Students come in and sit down. I have bright fluoro paper at the front. Students take some time choosing a colour. They are excited by paper. I haven’t cut them into squares, which are meant to be 15cm by 15cm. Then, once they are seated with paper, rulers and scissors, I announce “Okay, make the foxes”.

Brilliant variety of responses.


But I don’t remember.


Ooh I can do it, I practiced last night.

Show us the video again…. please….

That’s not fair.

Show me show me (to other students)

I calmed them down, and we discussed how they could have been better prepared, how they could have mastered making the fox puppet making. Then I showed the video again:

Wait! Wait! It’s too fast.

 All my students have tutorials on a stick, so I pointed out that they all had the tutorial. So they waved me away. It was lovely walking around the class. They were helping each other and everyone was making a fox at a pace they were comfortable with.

Once we had our pack of foxes, we broke into small groups of four or five to make our origami fireworks. I did the same thing by telling them to close their tablets and just watch. Each student would need to make two to three of the same thing, then piece them together working as a group.  I came up with this task. because I really want my students to support each other and help each other learn. Blended learning has the risk of being quite isolated.

The tutorial for the fireworks is quite fast in parts and it’s not as easy as the fox. Once the video was done I said “Go to it”. General panic again. After calming them down I asked what they needed. Of course, they all had it in their tutorials on a stick. It was a challenging task and they worked together brilliantly. Some of our origami masters became the walking talking real life tutorials and were therefore modelling helping and teaching each other.

We discussed everything that happened and how it will relate to the new way we are learning algebra this year. It was one of those lessons that went better than planned. Of course, some will forget but I have something concrete I can remind them of when they slip or begin lazy viewing.  And it was just plain fun in the mathematics classroom and all of my students know there is some very cool mathematics in origami.
Their homework was to prepare to make a fox in class next time – only notes could be used. 

Lesson Three:

Fox making time. Those who didn’t practice or make notes, couldn’t do it again, even though they could the lesson before. “Too many steps”. Students with notes or who had practiced or both had great success and helped those around them. Some could do it from memory, but very few. A great way to show different learners.  I told them that randomly next week, they will have to make a fox in five minutes. I’ll cut squares for them.

So today they all begin their self paced learning. My wiki isn’t as pretty as I’d like it, but I am not a web developer person. We all have to start somewhere. It’s very exciting. I’m expecting a little chaos.

Now it’s time to ready the major pieces of assessment so that they can use their skills.