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MEI maths conference

July 6, 2019

This year, I went to the MEI (Mathematics Education Innovation) conference in Bath university. In short, it was brilliant and a great chance to try out some maths, think about maths teaching and meet some other maths teachers. I really enjoyed getting the chance to put faces to twitter names and even managed to meet the three teachers I’m running an online course with but have never actually met! It’s a three day event and I was only able to go on the Saturday but no matter – there was still PLENTY to take in!

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The first thing I got given was a nice bag with some goodies in it and a jam-packed list of talks to choose from. It was really very difficult to narrow it down and there were multiple cases where I’d have been happy going to 3 or 4 in the same session.

There were several stands demoing their wares and, pleasingly, none of them were pushy about it at all. I got a chance to have a chat with Jo Sibley (@JusSumChick) who I’ve met before but never who ceases to be cheerful and enthusiastic even though she was trying to plan how to introduce the keynote plenary speaker later on.

Just before the sessions started I saw Ben Sparks (@SparksMaths) who introduced me to the legend that is Jonny Griffiths (@therispguy). If someone like Jonny is at a maths event, you can be sure it’s going to be good!

Session 1 – The Maths of Dobble – Keith Proffitt

This was a really nice talk and opportunity to explore the world of the card game Dobble.

Keith started by showing us the Tim Gowers’ blog in which he talks his way through a problem and highlights some of the dead ends he gets himself to. It’s a good read and fascinating to get a glimpse into the thought processes of someone who is clearly very good at maths.

During the session, I sat with a few people I didn’t (previously) know and we happily talked about the way the game was constructed while seeing if we could construct some of the smaller possible sets ourselves. It was fun to explore the maths and seeing it come together nicely with some mild prodding from Keith. At the end, he then let us in to the facts that Dobble is closely linked to projective geometry and that nobody knows if it is possible to make a Dobble set with 13 images per card!

Session 2 – Exploring Maths resources at Key Stage 3 and 4 – Jo Morgan

Jo is curator of the amazing website Resourceaholic in which she hand selects maths resources that she recommends. As such, she is very well placed to lead a session on resources!

She started off by talking about the many aims we may have when choosing/creating resources and that very often, the go to ‘intention’ is one of practising fluency. While this is important it’s not the only thing we should be looking for.

Jo nicely summarised the way in which teachers tend to choose their resources with 4 points:

  • Aim : What is the point of this resource? What do I hope to achieve by using it with my students?
  • Pitch : Is the work appropriately difficult for the class? Does it have a variety of difficulty throughout the resource?
  • Practical : Is this actually going to work? Does it rely on colour photocopying or too much printing? Are there mistakes or inaccuracies?
  • ( ♥ ) : Do I love this resource? Am I going to go into the class buzzing about the activity I’ve got planned?

This is a sensible and pragmatic approach to choosing resource and Jo was happy to accept that the 4th point isn’t always necessary, of course, but if none of your resources excite you, perhaps you should be finding/making some others.

As you’d expect, Jo pointed us to some specific websites and in particular mentioned Boss Maths with its very well thought through less presentations. There’s also Cleave Books which has a variety of resources including puzzles and teacher resources.

I enjoyed this session a lot. It’s great to see someone who is enthusiastic about maths give a talk about how to thoroughly prepare lessons and resources. In my mind, there are very few people who know more about planning and resources than Jo!

Session 3 – My first year of teaching Core Maths – Me

I led a session about Core Maths to a mixed bunch of teachers, some of who had been teaching it for 4 years, others of whom were planning to teach it soon. I won’t actually write about my talk here as I’ve covered a lot of Core Maths in other places on this blog but I will write about the envy/jealousy I felt about the teaching station set up!

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Teaching Station

The station had a screen on an adjustable arm stand, a visualiser and lamp. The touch screen controls at the back meant that using the projector and switching between display and volume options was easy. USB and other ports were easily accessible and the whole thing was at standing height (with a suitable chair too). To top it off, there was a microphone you could wear round your neck and a camera at the back of the room so that recording the session was possible. Another interesting aspect is that the desk is set up to be at standing height (with a suitable stool) which I think is very sensible. I don’t like sitting at my desk when I have a class in the room partly because I can’t see everyone but the extra height of a stool would be very useful.

I’m sure it was a relatively expensive set up but this sort of arrangement would make my teaching easier and make me feel a lot more professional. I’m certainly going to see how much of this arrangement I can organise back in my classroom.

Keynote Plenary – Craig Barton

I’ve been working with Craig via the TES maths panel since 2011 and it was flipping brilliant to actually meet him in person.

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Craig Barton

His keynote was based partly around his book and broken into 3 parts:

Silent Teacher

Craig described his approach of demonstrating a mathematical technique in silence. A key aspect of this is that when you pause, students must be thinking, “what have you just done?” and “what will you do next?” He also suggested getting students to write any questions they have down (after watching carefully) and see if those questions have been answered while working through some intelligent practice.

Two very important points I took away are:

  • Don’t endlessly repeat yourself. To quote Craig, “I used have the approach of ‘why say something once when you can say it 25 times?'”
  • Don’t go off on tangents. You lose the thread of the lesson and some students will be completely lost.

Simply, don’t have them. They take ages to create and put up, are a massive distraction and have no effect on memory. If anything, they encourage students not to bother remembering things. Similarly, don’t have a number line on the wall. If a student needs a number line, they should have the practice at drawing one.

The memory aspect was demonstrated beautifully by showing us 6 versions of the Google logo with the colours mixed up. It’s an image that we probably see every day but still couldn’t tell you which was round the colours should be.

Variation Theory

This is a complex topic and I can’t cover it here. At its simplest level, the idea is to have questions that vary slightly from the last one and students are then expected to think about how the question is different from the previous one and what impact that might have on the answer. There’s a lot more about it here but I’m interested to look into it more.

The clicker

I have to mention the coolest presentation clicker I’ve ever seen. It basically had a spotlight tool and zoom option. It’s expensive but we were all very impressed, so….

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Session 4 – Topsy-turvey maths teaching – Debbie Barker

Debbie works for MEI and showed us a few ways to introduce tasks to students so that by the end of the lesson, they could tell you what it was you’d intended them to learn without you explicitly telling them.

My favourite thing was simply using two pieces of coloured paper and then folding them into twelfths. Using these, it’s nice to be able to see that 1/6 + 1/2 = 8/12 without needing to resort to a procedural approach.

I also liked the activity ‘3-ish’ which is a sequences and patterns task where students are shown an image and told it’s the third one in a sequence. The key question is “what is 3-ish about this?” and then exploring what the other images in the sequence would be.


It really was an excellent event and I’d encourage you to look out for it next year. An additional nice touch was that a few days later, I got an email responding to the comments I’d made on my feedback form. I don’t think I’ve ever had that from a conference before but it was well received. I’m definitely looking forward to next year.

From → Maths, Teaching

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