A week in the life: Monday

This week has been incredibly hectic. I’ve done 2 school workshops, helped Julia with some filming, FINISHED THE THESIS and learnt about peer instruction from the wonderful Eric Mazur. Each of these things is worth a blog post in itself so that’s what I’m going to do, releasing one post a day. As ever, your comments are very welcome!

Monday: I set off with Julia to Hutchesons’ Grammar School in Glasgow to deliver an hour long workshop on Möbius strips. 60-odd primary school (P7/Yr 6) pupils had come from all over the region to experience a day of masterclasses, and mine was the last session of the day so everyone was a bit rowdy! For anyone who knows anything about Möbius strips the class was quite predictable: we drew a line down the middle of the strip to see how it was different from a cylinder; we cut the strips in half; we cut them in half again; we cut the strips in thirds; we explored what happened with different numbers of twists, and we made Möbius hearts. The last one you may not have seen before… Take two oppositely oriented strips, glue them together at right-angles, then cut in half. A perfect thing to make for Mothers Day!

I had intended to lead the class through the first few steps and chat a bit about the one-sided nature of the strips, but as soon as the kids had started to make the Möbius strips there was no stopping them! Many an excited child came running up to me (well, Julia): “Miss miss! Look what I’ve made! I don’t understand. Have I done it wrong?” The wonder and confusion on their little faces was gratifying! It was also great to see the accompanying teachers getting equally excited about the activity, and I do hope they will take away the ideas to use in future classes.

The only disappointing thing was that only 2 of the children (and 1 teacher) stopped to ask “Why?” instead of just going “Ooh”. Surely the ability to question things is the first thing we should be trying to cultivate among our children? (For more on this, see “Friday’s” post on the lecture by Eric Mazur!) When something is interesting or unexpected, why don’t the majority of people want to know why it works like that, instead of being content thinking that it’s “magic”? Is this questioning nature what distinguishes a scientist from a non-scientist? I think it is at least what distinguishes maths/science from a magic trick: that knowing how it works makes the phenomena more exciting, not less.

Fettes College

Should we be doing outreach in private schools?

There was also a bit of a moral question that I got thinking about during this workshop. For those of you that don’t know, Hutchesons’ is a fairly expensive private school, and there were apparently some state primary schools that refused to attend for this reason. One of my Twitter followers also commented on the privileged nature of the students, intimating perhaps that I should not be concentrating my outreach efforts on children who already have an advantaged education.  My general principle is that I do not discriminate on any grounds: any school is welcome to invite me to speak or do a workshop for them. It seems unfair to be judging children by the backgrounds of their parents… And yet, having been brought up in the state education system, I also see the need for putting more effort into working with the less privileged among us.

I didn’t quite realise until I chatted to the teachers at Hutchesons how much harder state school teachers have to work than private ones (although on reflection this seems obvious). A state school teacher is generally expected to teach 22 hours per week, while a private one will only do about 16 hours. When you think how much preparation is required for each lesson, this is a huge amount more work. There are also more pupils to worry about in each class, fewer resources to tap into and more discipline problems to deal with. When the average person finishes their teacher training, what incentive do they have to go into the state sector, where they do a more difficult job for less pay? We should be applauding those that do make this choice and give them all the help we can to make their classes easier and more exciting.

What do you think? Should we discriminate against private school pupils and focus all our engagement efforts on helping state school pupils, or is this unfair? And why do you think some state school teachers refused to let their pupils come to the (free) masterclass day put on by Hutchesons’ school?


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Charlotte on April 3, 2011 at 11:13 pm

    I don’t think it’s really appropriate to refuse to run a workshop at a private school if they ask you (although you could ask them to pay you, heh). But in terms of outreach I think it’s important that academics make an effort to contact state schools and arrange sessions for 2 reasons: firstly the teachers have less time to organise things like this so are less likely to come and ask you. Secondly, the kids need it more – they’ll be in bigger classes, and the teachers will have to spend more time on crowd control and less on teaching. Even in the top set at a really good state school it’s hard for the teachers to find time to engage the really talented kids, they’re very often left to get on with working quietly from the textbook while the teacher’s helping the ones who are struggling.

    Don’t worry too much about them not asking ‘why’. No matter how much outreach you do and how good you are, there’s a limit to the number of people who’re going to get excited about maths. It can be hard to see that when you’re telling people about something that you personally think is fascinating (ask me about sexual dimorphism in skeletal remains for a demonstration).


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