22 October 2014

The Art of Collaboration

There's been a lot of talk lately about the power of collaboration. The best thing a teacher can do to improve their practice is learn from other teachers.

The main lesson coming from Shanghai is that their teachers get much more time to collaborate than we do. So, given that we spend the majority of our time (at work and at home) marking and planning lessons, how can we make time to learn from others? 

Twitter is brilliant but I've tried to encourage my colleagues to join Twitter and they're not buying it! So although I'll start by talking about Twitter in this post, I'll also talk about other mechanisms for sharing ideas - conferences, TeachMeets, hubs, department meetings and blogs.

When Twitter works well
I want to start by showing you an example of Twitter working really well.

Over the last couple of months a lot of American teachers have tweeted about Plickers - it was demonstrated at Twitter Math Camp over summer. I recently got round to reading a few blog posts about Plickers. I like the idea so I wrote about it in my last gems post. I tweeted a link to my followers (see tweet below) and so far over 500 people have read that post.

I love it when teachers tell me that they've tried ideas and resources from my blog, so I was pleased to get this tweet the next day:

Great stuff. Twitter doing its job! The next day I got another tweet from Michelle:

Can see you how effective Twitter has been as a sharing mechanism here? The idea came from a summer teaching conference in America, across the Atlantic to me via Twitter, and I've shared it with my followers. A UK teacher tried it, loved it and will probably invite her colleagues to pop into a lesson when she's using it so they can see it in action. Plickers isn't everyone's cup of tea but perhaps one or two of Michelle's colleagues will try it too and - ta dah! We collaborated, we benefitted. The power of Twitter is clear.

Making the most out of Twitter
So you've joined Twitter and don't know what to do next. Find a maths teacher and follow the same people they follow. Aim to follow a hundred or so to start with - this number will grow quickly. I follow a hell of a lot of maths teachers and organisations involved in maths education (around 1,400!).

It's important to have a short 'bio' on your profile page. Say who you are and what you're there for. I've included six examples of useful bios at the bottom of this post - if you don't have a bio at all, base your bio on these. Preferably have a photo or maths picture too. I believe I can learn from everyone so am trying to follow every single UK maths teacher (I'm missing some because they don't have bios).

Start off with retweeting and favouriting tweets that you that find helpful. Reply to tweets if you have a question or point to raise or want to give some feedback (I love it when people tell me that they enjoy my posts). Soon you'll be sharing your own ideas and engaging in helpful conversations. You may become a prolific tweeter and you may write your own blog. But if you don't have time for those things, you'll still benefit if you just pop onto Twitter every now and then to pick up some ideas. The important thing is you have access to inspiration.

If you do a lot of tweets that aren't related to education (eg a running commentary of football matches) then consider having separate professional and personal accounts.

There are plenty of websites that discuss the benefits of Twitter for teachers and provide guides on how to use it so I won't repeat all that here. Just have a go and see what happens. I think you'll love it.

There are a great many training courses and conferences for maths teachers every year. But unfortunately many of us work in schools that don't give teachers the money or time off to attend these events. La Salle Education has come to the rescue with maths conferences on Saturdays that are free to attend. These conferences are enjoyable and informative. Some teachers wouldn't dream of giving up a Saturday to attend a conference but they really are missing out. I hope to see you all in Birmingham on 14th March for the next conference.

For a long time, proactive innovative teachers have been running events to share teaching ideas. Until I joined Twitter, I had no idea these events existed. If your school is not on the mailing list then it's easy to miss out. Here's some examples of the sort of events that people are involved in:
  • TeachMeets ('teachers sharing ideas with teachers') are a fantastic idea. TeachMeets are advertised though this website. It's a bit hard to navigate but is a good place to start if you're looking for local events. Sometimes there are specific 'MathsMeets' too. I expect the new Maths Hubs will get involved in these events (see below).
  • FMSP. The Further Maths Support Programme runs network events for maths teachers at Key Stage 4 and 5. Here's an example of a recent event: Supporting the transition from GCSE to AS Mathematics. For information on your local events, look at your regional page on the FMSP website.
  • Edexcel Hubs. I've only just heard about the 'Mathematics Collaborative Networks' - this appears to be another fantastic opportunity to collaborate with local schools.

Maths Hubs
I'm not entirely clear on what the new Maths Hubs are going to do, but I believe one of their roles will be to offer support to local schools, partly by organising and leading events in which information and ideas are shared. I think this will be particularly helpful in strengthening connections between primary and secondary schools. Some people are sceptical that the hubs will have any impact - I say be patient give them a chance to get organised. It won't work if we don't support them. The hubs have funding and time set aside to take the lead on collaboration, so find out what they're doing and get involved. Some lead schools have already held launch events but many events are coming up in November. At the moment the communication from hubs is a bit patchy - contacting hundreds of schools is probably harder than it sounds - so make a start by following the hubs on Twitter and making contact via the NCETM website.

Department Meetings
Many maths department meetings are dominated by administration and dissemination of school policies so there's little time left to discuss teaching ideas. The most useful conversations are about pedagogy eg 'how do you teach circle theorems?' (see Ed Southall's post about this).

If you have too much administration to do, then the Head of Maths should talk to SLT - something along the lines of, "you know that item on the agenda for the next Inset that's a big waste of everyone's time? Let's replace that with departmental collaboration time" (or perhaps something a bit more tactful!). You could even arrange to visit maths departments at other schools so you can bring back fresh ideas to share (Cav recently wrote a post about this). If your Headteacher wants grades to improve then every department needs time to focus on developing their teaching.

There are so many good blogs that I can't even begin to list them all here. If you're on Twitter and you follow maths teachers who write blogs then they will tweet about their new posts. Alternatively you could set up a feed to receive new posts by email. Another good idea is to follow the The Echo Chamber - through this you'll be able to read a good selection of UK education blogs (not just maths blogs) so you can keep up-to-date on the latest issues and opinions.

Twitter chats
Finally, back to Twitter. There are two weekly UK maths Twitter chats. This is where maths teachers discuss specific topics at a specific time.
  • #mathscpdchat is 7pm every Tuesday. Click here for details. Follow @mathscpdchat for information about discussion topics and links to summaries of previous discussions.
  • #mathschat is 8pm every Wednesday. Click here and follow @BetterMaths for details. 
There are other chats you may be interested in such as NQTChat, UKEdChat and SLTchat. #PedagooFriday is also a great place to share ideas.

Opportunities to Collaborate?
Even with all these opportunities to develop, there are still huge numbers of maths teachers who feel isolated or who simply don't have the time or inclination to engage with other teachers. Hopefully there is at least one idea here that they will take on board. League tables put schools in competition with each other but it shouldn't be like that - everyone in education should work together for the greater good.

Examples of helpful Twitter bios

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