What will ‘going to University’ mean if you can’t ‘go’ to University ?

Since writing my last post four years ago, I have not given a thought to restarting this blog, let alone in circumstances like these.

My reason for posting today is that when I have engaged lately with family, friends or colleagues about the current pandemic, I have realized how confused everyone is, whereas the mechanism is actually quite simple when you know the background.

I am not interested in theories, socio-political science-fiction or scenario-based speculation. Nor do I pretend to have any solution. I just want to recap a few basic facts that explain the situation we are in. Some of my friends have asked me my statistician’s point of view, but to be honest the answer would stretch any listener’s patience, although no numbers or advanced stats are involved. So here it is, for those who are interested.

Before starting, let me also say that there is no contradiction between ‘thinking’ and ‘feeling’. Apologies for going against the current media-induced emotional state, but you can be genuinely compassionate about the hardships many people experience at the moment and still keep your head about what’s going on.

The first point is that there is nothing new in this pandemic from an epidemiological standpoint. Back in 1957, between 2 and 3 million people died of the flu, including several hundred thousands in Europe. There was a lesser but nevertheless mass epidemic 10 years later, followed by other ones in the 90s and 10 years ago. By nature, the flu virus mutates. It has mutated before and will mutate again. Therefore, despite what the mass media coverage would have us believe and the restrictive measures we all have to comply with, this outbreak is neither exceptional nor the worst in living memory.

The second point, of which I know from working on epidemiological modelling and policies in the past, is also the most important: the only strategy that works when it comes to fighting against an epidemic is identifying and tracing cases, e.g. testing. That is a constant, whether you are talking about flu, TB, malaria or aids. It has been known for a long time. Would early mass-testing have helped avoiding mass confinement and economical destruction in the UK, France, Italy, Spain, etc. ? The answer is yes, because it would have enabled millions of healthy people to return to their work, as well as helping the more vulnerable. It would have also prevented shutting down schools and shattering young people’s lives. But mass-testing requires both preparation and quick decision processes on a national scale. It is no coincidence that the two countries which have successfully implemented this strategy (South Korea, Germany) are among the most organised democracies in the world. Three weeks ago, when I told friends that most Western governments were doing exactly the opposite of what they should have done, they thought I was a loony. Today, this view seems more palatable, for some reason.

The third point is that no health system can safely cope with an outbreak like this, whether it’s the NHS or any other health system. If it could, then it would mean that it is oversized in normal times, which it clearly isn’t, so that’s a no-brainer.

The fourth point is another no-brainer: social distancing and restrictive measures on people’s movement reduce (or slow down) the propagation of the virus and help health systems to cope. No need to be a great mathematician to understand that. So, when governments claim that they are making science-based decisions, they are correct in that sense. It’s also a spin, as it would be more accurate to say that these measures are a common-sense unavoidable last resort given that they first ignored (or were unprepared for) the one sensible strategy, which was mass-testing.

From there on, it’s just a ‘more or less’ story: health systems will cope more or less well, there will be more or less casualties, it will take more or less time, etc. In that intrinsically relative context, the British media’s blame game of putting pressure on the UK government by comparing their measures with France’s or Italy’s is highly dubious, for one simple reason: every time you cross a frontier, be it national or regional (London versus less populated areas in England, for example), three things change: scale (population size), density and culture. This makes it impossible to make actionable comparisons of ‘performance’ across countries. In their zeal, the UK media tend to forget this is a global pandemic, not Masterchef.

My last point is about confinement. As I said before, it is a necessary short-term measure given the absence of mass-testing (let’s keep our head in the way we comply, though: whether you go out and exercise for 20 minutes or 2 hours makes no difference to the propagation, it’s the social distancing that counts!). But the longer-term immunological and wider health-related consequences of mass confinement are very much uncharted territory. To the best of my knowledge, confinement hasn’t been used on a large scale since the cholera epidemics of the 18th century, which were quite specific. This time, the final equation will be complex and, to say the least, highly interdependent and multi-dimensional. I would be very wary of anyone who claims to know the bottom line. Even looking at the practical side only (and that’s just one aspect of it), the way out of this situation will depend on how quickly and effectively mass testing will be implemented in each country (and not only in the UK, as we are all in this together).

The question of the ‘way-out’ is, of course, a critical point for universities right now (https://wonkhe.com/blogs/the-clock-is-ticking-on-a-decision-about-september-entry/).

Since the beginning of the crisis, universities have mostly cascaded government decisions. But there are now major business model questions ahead: what will it mean to ‘go to University’ when you cannot actually ‘go’ there ? Will prospective students still adhere to the offline togetherness of student life on campus ? Or will they switch to providers that already sell online degrees and have huge fast-growth potential ?

Should we try and adapt in the (wishful?) hope that no major mutation will happen in the way HE is delivered round the globe ? Or should we totally re-think what we can offer in this new world ? In other words, should we just seek to adapt our provision within the same business model ? Or accept the possibility that the virus might have damaged the business model so badly that it will soon be obsolete ?

For a start, let’s rephrase those questions from the general to the quantitative (‘how many students will etc.’ rather than ‘students will…’). Campus life and offline academia will still be attractive for a number of students, but the problem is: how many are we going to lose over the next few months and years as a result of this crisis ? Any decrease in student numbers would be regarded as problematic in normal times, but now we are looking at change on a totally different scale. As for the validity of such metrics as continuation, value-added, entry tariff, etc. in next year’s league tables: excuse my French…

I do not have the answers to these questions more than anyone else, but there’s one thing I know: it’s student experience that will make the difference, and student experience is NOW, not in the distant future. I hear that some universities are already restricting next term’s provision (even online) or cancelling exams altogether: is that the right approach ? By doing so, aren’t they (to use an expression from my native culture) buying matches for their own cremation?

Online degree providers are rubbing their hands at some universities’ dithering process-driven approach over next term’s exams and assessments – they’ve done this online successfully for years.

The core problem here is that universities are not always very good at making decisions which are both student-driven and data-informed. The data is there, but it must be looked at differently, otherwise decisions could miss the main point, which is that this crisis has put our current (and prospective) students in different situations and we owe them ALL a solution that matches their aspirations.

This is not the time to be paralyzed by the search of a ‘one size fits all’ solution. If we do not segment our solutions (as all good businesses do) to adapt to these situations, this will be just another let-down.


Open-ended Maths: a selection of 101qs favourites

The 101qs website was created in 2012 by Dan Meyer, a great Maths teacher and dedicated apostle of open-ended Maths.

‘Open-ended Maths’ is an expression that sounds pretty scary to many Maths teachers. A lot worse than ‘out of the textbook’, which is rather trendy and flattering. Dan Meyer’s first paragraph on his About page does not seek to cajole them back to their comfort zone either:

We don’t care how well you lecture. We don’t care how well you engage us. We aren’t impressed by your fancy slide transitions or your interactive whiteboard. We care how well you perplex us.

This sets the tone perfectly: open-ended Maths is about stimulating students by presenting them with a perplexing picture or video — perplexing in the sense that it raises questions. Students have to formulate the questions themselves and subsequently solve them, which often means developing appropriate resources on the way.

If you are a regular reader of my posts, you know by now that this blog is not about being ‘for’ or ‘against’, but understanding precisely WHY and HOW an idea is potentially useful for teaching Maths. In this instance, it so happens that open-ended Maths is not only cool, it is also an essential teaching tool — for reasons I shall explain in a later post — on the condition that it is not used systematically (for reasons I shall also explain).

Read More »

Introducing (some) problem-solving skills

Problem-solving is not only a prominent Maths activity, as shown in the Maths ability pyramid. It is also a discipline of its own, with its specific know-how. In other words, the specific skills of problem-solving can be learnt too. By doing so, students will not only learn to solve problems more efficiently, they will also make the best of problem-solving’s high educational value.

For Maths teachers, it means that it is possible to choose problems for students not only according to a particular Maths topic (fractions, algebra, trigonometry, etc.) but also with a view to practise one or several problem-solving skills.

In order to do this, it is necessary to identify and name these skills. This post covers 10 problem-solving skills, which you can see in action in UKMT JMC 2015 (cf. my JMC 2015 teacher’s notes).

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UKMT (teacher’s notes) – JMC 2015

This is the first post presenting my teacher’s notes of past UKMT papers, starting with JMC 2015.

The objective of these teacher’s notes is not to provide solutions — UKMT already provides an excellent Pdf of solutions and further investigations, which you can download here — but to provide insights to teachers as to how UKMT questions can be used in the classroom.

In other words, these teacher’s notes are about making the best of the educational value of UKMT questions. Which, by the way, extends the scope of UKMT questions beyond their target age group. For example, some JMC questions, although intended for Year 7-8 students, can be used for educational purposes up to GCSE, sometimes even with A level students with the addition of relevant extensions and investigations.

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What is a logical progression ?

Maths makes a lot of sense when it is taught in a way that makes sense. If you teach something that makes sense in a way that doesn’t, at the end of the day it doesn’t make sense.

In other words, if we teachers don’t get our conceptual thinking right, then we can’t really expect students to, can we ?

The most important dimension of this conceptual thinking depends on the age group you are teaching to. However, there is definitely one dimension of conceptual thinking you cannot overlook from secondary school on: the logical progression.Read More »

Are Maths exams robbing students of the fun ?

After weeks of writing and talking to teachers about behaviour management, I am back (with relief) to posting on my favourite topic: Maths teaching. That is no doubt the effect of meeting two highly inspirational people (one Maths teacher and one Headmaster) within a few days.

I would like to start this post with a seemingly remote comment which was kindly sent to me by a reader concerning the Maths ability pyramid, pointing out that the pyramid does explain ‘what we do in Maths and why we do it’, but not HOW we do it.

Which is absolutely true: the HOW question is extremely important and it will require several posts to develop this (inexhaustible) point. One could even say that, for Maths students, it’s the ‘HOW we do Maths’ that makes a huge difference.Read More »

Go for hybrids ! (How to spark off a Maths topic ? – Part 3)

This is the last part of our review of possible ways to spark off a Maths topic (preliminary note: it is recommended to read the 2 previous posts: How to spark off a Maths topic ? – Part 1: concept processors and How to spark off a Maths topic ? – Part 2: memory reinforcers).

Actually… the best sparks are often hybrids. It’s quite nice to have logic (conceptual processor) + emotional engagement in order to activate memory (memory reinforcer).

Let’s look at a few examples…Read More »

Memory reinforcers (How to spark off a Maths topic ? – Part 2)

We continue our review of possible ways to spark off a Maths topic (it is recommended to read the previous post: How to spark off a Maths topic ? – Part 1: concept processors).

Today, we are talking about the second category of sparks: memory reinforcers.

The idea of memory reinforcers is to spark off a topic with something that engages beyond the intellect in order to reinforce memory. What you choose may not seem logical, but that is beside the point if you reach your goal of memory reinforcing.

As memory champion Josua Foer explains: ‘We remember when we are able to take a piece of information and experience it. We remember when we pay attention. We remember when we are engaged’.

A memory reinforcer can be…Read More »

How to spark off a Maths topic ? – Part 1: concept processors

This post is about sparking off the core topic of a Maths lesson. (NB: This is different from starting a lesson with a Do Now or Starter, which are often used (and quite rightly so) as retrieval activities or stimulating/settling activities, but are not necessarily related to the core topic of the day’s lesson). Therefore, the spark will often be the second item in the lesson, but it is the first point of contact with the main topic.

Choosing the right spark to introduce a topic is important for 3 reasons:

  • First of all, the spark should totally serve the core topic, either through raising a question that will inevitably lead to the new concept or skill being introduced, or by catching attention and reinforcing how the lesson will be remembered.
  • Secondly, the spark should be in direct correlation with the way the main point of the lesson will be wrapped up (more about that in a future post).
  • Thirdly, the spark should introduce the first increment on prior knowledge, i.e. building up on what students already know.

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How to develop fundamental abilities

This post provides a few practical tips on how to develop fundamental abilities (i.e. the first level of the Maths ability pyramid), thus helping students to become more confident by increasing their awareness and fluency with the mental manipulation of objects and processes such as order, numbers, causes and consequences.

There is a double benefit in working on this development: not only does it help teenagers to focus and develop mental resources, but it does so by involving them in a series of lively exercises that look very much like collective games with relatively little Maths involved. In other words, developing fundamental abilities is both low-cost and high-benefit.Read More »

Stephen Hawking, the ultimate teacher

This post is an ‘extension’ of the previous post concerning the Magic of Q&A beyond expectations.

Back in May 2015, thousands of people gathered at Sydney Opera House for a talk by Stephen Hawking. Appearing in 3D hologram form, beamed in from Cambridge University, the physicist was asked the following question by an audience member: ‘What do you think is the cosmological effect of Zayn leaving One Direction, and consequently breaking the heart of millions of teenage girls across the world ?’Read More »

The magic of Q&A beyond expectations

It is always very stimulating when questions and answers in a Maths lesson suddenly go beyond all expectations.

This might sound like this is something that only happens exceptionally. Not so. In a class where a climate of questions and answers has been set in mutual trust, exceeding expectations happens almost every day.

In this post, I would like to show two such examples, one where my expectations as a teacher were exceeded, and another where a student improved his own conceptual understanding starting from a misconception – which was of great benefit to the whole class.Read More »

Three things your Maths students should not be afraid of

For many students, Maths is not fun, it’s fright !

That is not necessarily what they will show in the classroom. When students experience difficulty in Maths, they might appear bored, annoyed, rebellious, ironic, puzzled, defiant, etc. but not afraid, because they are proud.

It’s adults that tell you how frightening the experience was when they were kids. Adults are not in the classroom anymore, they can let the fright out and even laugh about it.

But where does this ‘Maths fright’ really come from ?Read More »

Why is it so important for students to have a sound number foundation ?

Yes, you’ve heard it before… ‘Students can’t do sums anymore’.

You had heard it before, hadn’t you ? Well, just in case you hadn’t, that’s exactly what someone was telling me last night at the pub: ’Oh, you’re a Maths teacher, eh ? Well, I’ll tell you one thing, mate: kids can’t do sums anymore !’

That was just in case you hadn’t heard it before.

True or not true ? Important or not ?Read More »

The Maths ability pyramid


The Maths ability pyramid is a communication tool I have created in order to explain more easily to students and parents what we do in Maths and why we do it.

The initial idea behind the Maths ability pyramid is not only to access a better understanding of what learning Maths is, but also to get rid of this highly misleading fiction: the one monolithic so-called ‘Maths ability’ (you know, when parents or students tell you: ‘Sir/Miss, I’m not good at Maths anyway’…).Read More »