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Why we created BossMaths
As experienced Maths teachers, we have over the years used several fantastic online and offline resources to help our students. Nevertheless, we had begun to notice some unintended consequences of using the resources available on the market, and thought that we could address these by creating BossMaths. For example, one unintended consequence reported to us by some schools was that students’ preference for online work led to improved homework completion rates in subjects that set tasks online, but declined for other subjects.
When creating BossMaths, we’ve had these principles in mind:
Students spending more time doing maths online would be fantastic if this complemented a reasonable minimum amount of written work. In many cases, however, students are doing online work at the expense of written work, and teachers are sometimes complicit. Many maths platforms exploit gamification and use extrinsic motivation to incentivise students to rack up scores, virtual trophies, stars, and hours of learning—all online.
Of course, schools do use fantastic online platforms and students do make progress, but publicly available GCSE results show that using a platform doesn’t automatically ensure a school’s students make good progress: teachers have to use the platform correctly to ensure it works as desired. So, we asked ourselves, for four main reasons, whether a platform designed to encourage a wholesale culture change could make it easier for teachers to use correctly and see students making even greater progress.
Firstly, many schools benefit more in the year they launch a new platform than in subsequent years. This may be down to the enthusiasm of teachers and students for a new platform, and also because of culture changes encouraged by the makers of the platform. In many ways, however, the platforms don’t best promote culture change through their own design, and put the onus on teachers to do so. This is fine as long as the teachers can do this. When the effort required by teachers to sustain a culture becomes too great, however, the benefits that were down to that culture are lost. This becomes an issue when a platform’s success is based more on sustaining a culture than on the intrinsic design and quality of the platform itself.
Secondly, the nature of online questions is currently better suited to testing isolated skills than application and synthesis of skills. In exams, we would often see students struggle to present clear mathematical arguments on the longer-form questions, despite the fact they had all the individual skills they needed. Clearly these students would have benefited from more written practice.
Thirdly, we also see in many schools a pattern of students heavily using a maths platform, performing well at GCSE, choosing to continue with Maths into the Sixth Form, but then struggling at A-Level—partly because they have not developed the skills needed for longer questions.
Finally, we found that while lower-achieving students benefit the most from the online platforms, the highest-achieving students benefited most from exposure to challenging—and invariably written—work that was either found online or created from scratch. It is interesting to note the differences in take-up of the major platforms between comprehensive schools on one hand and selective schools on the other. The major platforms tend to be so obsessively focused on specifications and examinations that they shackle bright and curious students if their teachers do not otherwise provide for them.
For these reasons, we have created BossMaths—a website with plenty of longer-form exercises suitable for written work, and with material that goes beyond the narrow focus of examinations.
Maths is the subject most often taught in ability-based sets—often for valid reasons—and the subject also continues to have examination tiers of entry. Nevertheless, one consequence is that it is all too easy for both teachers and students to subconsciously lower their expectations as a result of setting and examination tier. The resources we choose often reinforce such expectations—we may eschew difficult topics because we think that students cannot cope. While this may be perfectly true, students who are not even exposed to more challenging material don’t know what they are missing out on.
BossMaths lessons include differentiated content and “challenge” questions embedded into every lesson. It is up to teachers to choose the appropriate range of content within each lesson. However, we made the design choice to include ever more challenging content just a scroll to the right in order to increase students’ exposure to the existence of more challenging material—so that they become aware that there is more to learn, even if they are not yet ready to learn about it straight away.
In some schools, teachers spend a significant proportion of their time monitoring students, collecting data, inputting this data elsewhere, generating personalised documents for pupils, targeting interventions at particular students, and refining and delivering an exam-focussed curriculum.
In some others schools, teachers spend a very low proportion of their time collecting data. They spend more of their time developing their curriculum and creating an environment that encourages students to become more responsible for themselves—while maintaining strict boundaries.
Both of these types of schools can and do achieve excellent examination results—but examination results do not completely illustrate the quality of education provided. Students with identical GCSE grades can perform very differently at A-Level, university and in the workplace. While many factors can influence this divergence, we believe that schools can play a powerful role in ensuring students are well-equipped to cope with the challenges they will face in further education, the workplace and their personal lives.
As Craig Barton notes in How I Wish I’d Taught Maths, students asking when they’ll need to use a particular bit of maths in real life is often a sign that they don’t understand rather than a genuine interest in real-world applications. He also notes that poorly-conceived real-life problems can be pointless, confusing and sometimes dangerous. We have all seen uninspiring, contrived “real-life” applications. For example, whilst it is possible to use trigonometry to solve problems involving placing a ladder against a wall, this is neither exciting nor something that real users of ladders are likely to do!
On the other hand, Mathematics is used in many genuinely mind-blowing ways in real life, but the level of knowledge required to appreciate these is out of reach for most students. Given this fact, our In the real world featurettes are not designed to instruct students through real-life contexts or to present contrived problems for them to solve. These featurettes contain curated articles and videos about how Maths is used in fascinating contexts—and are accessible because they don’t get bogged down into mathematical technicalities. Our aim through these is to inspire students, broaden their horizons and increase the likelihood of their choosing a STEM subject in Sixth Form and beyond.
Online textbooks are often formatted identically to their physical counterparts. While identical formatting has the advantage of consistency, it can result in a frustrating experience for teachers and students. Ostensibly, many online textbooks are designed for front-of-class use; they even include pen and highlighter tools. In practice, the material can be very difficult to present on interactive whiteboards. Even students using tablets with high-resolution screens constantly need to zoom and pan across textbook pages.
That’s why we have ensured that BossMaths lessons look good on all devices, and don’t require a username or password to access. We are also going a step further by producing an eBook. Therefore, unlike the major publishers, our offering will include an eBook that works offline and only requires a single purchase as opposed to an annual subscription.
At BossMaths, we include GeoGebra applets in our lessons where we can. This dynamic content is more helpful for teachers and students than static illustrations or passively-watched videos alone. Here, for example is one of the applets from our lesson on circle theorems. Note that by moving point P to the 3-o’clock position (just above point B), we can illustrate, live, how the angle at the circumference is double the angle at the centre even in cases where a chord intersects a radius. We can also move points A and B so that the angle at the centre is reflex, and show that the theorem still holds. A single textbook illustration cannot convey all of this at a glance.
Most schools either post details of homework on a VLE or a homework management website. Therefore, setting an online maths homework means that teachers have to set the task via their maths platform and then post the same details to the VLE/ homework website. This involves selecting a task, assigning it to an appropriate class, setting a start date and a due date—often via clunky drop-down menus. These are small but cumulatively significant administrative burdens for busy teachers, even before these burdens are doubled.
In contrast, setting homework using worksheets or textbooks is far easier, and marking is no hassle if answers are shown on the board and students self-mark. Teachers can use this opportunity to provide whole-class feedback as appropriate. Setting BossMaths exercises as written homework is designed to be as easy as setting a worksheet or textbook homework: simply share the short, easy BossMaths lesson URL with students or print a copy of the relevant BossMaths worksheet—and either post it to your VLE/ homework platform, or get students to write it in their diaries
Most maths platforms generate large quantities of data for teachers, usually in the form of colour-coded scores for each student on each online task. Unfortunately quantity is not synonymous with quality. Most teachers also keep separate spreadsheets containing data on students’ performances on written exams and other written assessments, and find data from these to be far more valuable when it comes to predicting future success. Furthermore, the notion that online homework can help teachers identify student weaknesses is an attractive one, but somewhat negated by the fact that teachers often have a very good knowledge of student strengths and weaknesses because they interact with their students in the classroom!
While generating copious data for teachers, most maths platforms provide limited feedback for students. While they tell a student whether they got a question right or wrong, and in some cases what the correct answer was, there is no detailed formative feedback. Some platforms provide teachers the option to type individual comments via a web interface, but this requires several clicks just to save one comment to one student. To write personalised feedback for several students in this way would frankly be a step backwards from simply handwriting feedback on written work! For this reason, many teachers rarely, if ever, use the option to make individual comments via their maths platform’s online interface.
In contrast, at BossMaths we are working on ways to give instant feedback for students—telling them not only whether they are right or wrong, but where exactly they have gone wrong (if they have made a common error) and giving students full worked solutions. We’ll have more to announce on this in 2019!
Who we are
Sudeep has five years of teaching experience in comprehensive secondary schools in London, in roles up to Head of Department. He studied Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, during which time he volunteered as a teaching assistant in a programme for gifted students in Tower Hamlets, London. He is passionate about mathematics and its applications in science, technology and engineering. He became a maths teacher partly because he recognised that mathematical aptitude can make a difference to students’ opportunities in life, but mainly because he believes that under the right circumstances, everyone can learn to appreciate the beauty of mathematics for its own sake.
He is interested in computing and in fact first created a website to generate automatic feedback for students’ online homework at his first school, using Google Forms, back in 2009. The last task from that early website is still online!
Sudeep holds an MPhil in Environmental Policy and he is also a qualified accountant. He has used his mathematical skills in the real world, working on performance audits and financial audits in education, climate change, and home affairs. Sudeep grew up in the fine city of Norwich—where the recent city centre redevelopment has turned out very nicely—and enjoys tennis and cricket.
James has fourteen years of teaching experience in comprehensive secondary schools in London, including nine years as Assistant Head Teacher. He studied Mathematics at the University of East Anglia. He then went on to work as a teaching assistant where his passion for helping pupils began to develop. Through teaching maths over the last 14 years, James developed an excellent understanding of what makes a good lesson, and how high-quality feedback can impact pupils’ learning. James became a maths teacher because he throughly enjoyed his own maths lessons when he was a pupil.
James is passionate about the countryside, and has a keen interest in matters relating to the welfare of animals—in particular his two cats Rhaegar and Daenerys!
James grew up in the Steel City of Sheffield and enjoys mountain biking and skiing.
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