Roaming Free in the Maths – Google’s 20% Time by Accident

rolling down a hill

rolling down a hill by woodleywonderworks licensed under CC by A

It isn’t actually 20% of allotted time for Grade 8 Mathematics, more like 17%. Close enough when not dealing with NASA type accuracy.

There has been a lot of discussion about The Khan Academy. It’s made some people very happy and some people sound quite vexed. I personally like it. Is it what is fascinating and wonderful about mathematics? No. Does it help some of our kids progress with skills? Yes, it does.

My grade 8s have the joy of Mathematics five times every fortnight, every Tuesday and Friday an alternating Wednesdays. The Wednesday lessons are slightly shorter than the others. After we finished our unit on Statistics and Linear Equations we then looked at the Mathematics they had been applying to their investigations in its simplest or purest (abstract) forms. They had been successfully applying it, but it then posed a challenge for some when it lacked a context. Quite interesting to go the other way. It is at this point where I like to give students a chance to fine tune their algebraic skills so that they are ready for high school Mathematics and Science. Not just a few lessons, but a regular time in classes to work on their skills, particularly algebra. This is where Algebra on Demand came from.

Every Wednesday my Grade 8s take a break from their unit, currently Probability, and do what they need to. The original plan was the Khan Academy, but this has changed in a very exciting way. It was the students who led me there.

Now my students choose what they do:

  • Khan Academy for skill mastery. Some of my students have their parents and tutors as coaches. Some parents have even joined in.
  • Work from other schools.  Our Korean and Japanese students often have extra Mathematics, needed for entry into schools back home.
  • Interesting Student Led Investigations. These students started using Khan for Mathematics beyond our Grade 8 curriculum. This led to them asking questions which lead to investigations purely out of interest. That’s a win! I don’t ask for written reports. Sitting with them, seeing what they have found and discussing the Mathematics is feedback enough that they are pushing themselves further. Why take the fun away?
Being able to move around the room and check on progress is key. I also really push the idea that I am a resource to be used, as are their fellow students. I did not mean for this to be the Google 20%, but it happened and I love it. The students really like that they get to choose to where to focus their mathematical attention.  I love this class.
Outside of this we are doing what we do in Mathematics in this exciting time of using technology. It is not chalk and talk. It is not just Khan. It is not just textbook. It is not just investigations. It is so many things.
Can The Khan Academy replace a Mathematics curriculum and teacher? I don’t think so. Is it useful? I do think so.

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 thatquiz.org 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: http://algebraondemand.wikispaces.com/ 

Now I need a new name for my blog.