15 June 2018

What you learn in Mathematics classes...

Bryanston's Head of Mathematics, Alex Hartley, explains why Maths is more relevant outside the classroom than you might think.

As interesting and enjoyable as it is to use a pair of compasses to construct the perpendicular bisector of a straight line, I do confess that pupils have asked me when exactly they will use this skill in real life. Further, I will even concede that my usual response – that it will form part of their iGCSE examinations – is, in the language of youngsters today, a bit lame. So, in this post I will attempt to explain more generally what our pupils learn through studying Mathematics, and whether or not there is more to it than just getting to the right answer.

With a new class, my first lesson of the academic year in September might well involve what I call the Handshakes Investigation. Working in groups, we establish, by getting out of our seats and getting involved, how many handshakes might take place when, say, three, or four, or another number of people meet for the first time. Building up a table of results for various numbers of people, we might seek to explain the patterns that are evident, refining our thoughts to form an algebraic equation and using this to test and predict future results. There’s a lot in there; elements of teamwork, of identifying patterns in numbers, and predicting and testing future results. At a more advanced level, pupils are generalising a particular rule and hence using algebra to construct a simple yet elegant and powerful formula that can be used not just in the cases already discussed, but many more besides. This investigation is a journey for each pupil and there’s a lot more to it than simply getting to the right answer. It also makes for a richer experience than simply working through problems from a textbook, although there is, of course, a time and a place for that and practice does indeed make perfect. Looking towards a real-life application, it is analogous to the problem of asking how many matches take place in a league in which a certain number of teams all play each other*.

Change in the world of mathematics teaching is approaching, with both the British curriculum and the IB offering new courses within the next few years. Following the Chancellor’s encouragement in his Autumn Statement (2017), we’ve offered Core Maths as an accessible course in the sixth form. Core Maths is entirely based around the practical applications of maths – mainly statistical and financial – that our pupils are likely to need both in their personal and professional lives, regardless of the career choices they make. We’re optimistic that our first cohort of pupils, who are just completing A3 (Year 12), will earn a good set of grades which will contribute to their overall accumulation of UCAS points and may enhance their choices at university. The IB curriculum will soon change too, and mathematics will be split into two subjects; Maths Analysis (which will contain a great deal of algebra and calculus, in common with A level courses), and Maths Applications (which will focus upon the uses of maths in real-life).

What would I do differently, if it were up to me to design the curriculum? Three things. First of all, I’d make iGCSE Mathematics, and particularly the foundation tier, focus more upon the applications of mathematics to real life. More questions about, for example, personal finance and perhaps we’d cope without a pair of compasses. Secondly, I’d insist that everybody studied mathematics at some level in the sixth form (just like in the IB) and finally, I’d set more questions that drew in a range of different skills, because that would encourage pupils to better understand the rich connections between each area of mathematics that they study.

So, there’s a lot to enjoy and savour in mathematics lessons; there is of course a range of skills and techniques which do need to be explicitly taught and practised to ensure fluency. But solving problems, talking things through, and creating and testing ideas is all in there too – and this is true for all pupils, no matter what their prior attainment or ability in Mathematics.

* h = ½ x n x (n+1)  is the formula, where h is the number of handshakes, and n the number of people involved. Relating this to sports fixtures, 20 Premier League teams could play each other in ½ of 20 x 19 = 190 matches, but overall 380 matches are played each season because teams meet both home and away.

You can follow Bryanston Mathematics on Twitter here @BryanstonMaths.

25 May 2018

The power of questions

This week our Chaplain, the Reverend Canon Andrew Haviland, emphasises the importance of ensuring our young people are confident to continue questioning and searching for answers.

If you watched the Royal Wedding last weekend, you will have heard Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon about the power of love and how, if we could harness the power of love like we have harnessed the power of fire, the world could be transformed for the better.

His sermon had a significant impact not only because of what he said, but also how he said it. Nobody was expecting to have such a charismatic preacher in the genteel and formal surroundings of St George’s Chapel at Windsor. It looked as if some members of the congregation were not expecting to be challenged and entertained at the same time and it was totally apparent that Bishop Curry enjoys not only preaching, but also engaging with his congregation.

In recent weeks Bryanston has hosted two confirmation services where pupils and adults have stood up and decided that now is the time to say ‘yes’ to the message of the Christian faith. Both services, Anglican and Roman Catholic, were ones of real joy and happiness and celebrated the power of love that Bishop Curry spoke about at the Royal Wedding. The two bishops, the Bishop of Sherborne and the Bishop of Plymouth, were marvellous with the candidates both before and during the service. The church was packed with people supporting them, and the music department once again did an amazing job in providing stunning choirs to lead the service.

Confirmation for these people, and for some of us here in the Bryanston community, is a time to celebrate and also to reflect. Those who had expressed an interest in being confirmed attended a series of confirmation preparation sessions. This was a time to meet in small supportive groups, in a relaxed setting with some hot chocolate and heaps of biscuits, which made it very different to a normal academic lesson.

But, like any good academic lesson, the purpose of these sessions was to educate not indoctrinate. What we tried to do was empower the young people to not be content with trite or simple responses to the big questions of life. The purpose was to help them to continue questioning and searching for answers. We examined the life and effect of Jesus and how his life has inspired people. We also critically explored how Christians have got the message wrong and made massive errors in life. In my experience, religion goes wrong when some think they have all the answers and think that their way is the only way.

Ensuring people are confident to question is vital and it is something that Bryanston aims to foster in all its young people. It is at the heart of our pastoral, academic, creative and spiritual curriculum and demonstrated through Bryanston’s Guiding Principles. The week after half term Bryanston is hosting its second Education Summit with the theme: “Where Next for Schools? Moving Education Up to the Next Level.” It should be a super event, empowering teachers and those interested in education to question and reflect on best practice.

The power to question, like harnessing the power of fire and the power of love empowering those around us to continue to question, has the potential to transform the world for the better.

11 May 2018

Why take a gap year?

This week Sarah Sutton from the Bryanston Careers Office takes a look at the benefits, and considerations, of taking a gap year.

It is Tuesday week 2 at 4pm. The main corridor has been polished to within a micron of its parquet, visitor signage is in place, and there is an air of expectation in Jeffreys, as A2 volunteers help exhibitors to unload for the Futurewise Gap Fair. Elsewhere, A3s are being encouraged to hot-foot to DJLT to hear OB Alice Baker (from The Leap) talk about her gap experiences and how to plan a gap break. By 5:30pm the fair is open and a healthy buzz can be heard throughout Dorchester, Cowley and Grosvenor. A steady stream of parents, pupils and visiting schools browse the stands, having lively conversations about an array of gap possibilities, from marine conservation, volunteering, short courses in art history, business, cookery, TEFL, leadership, as well as instructor training for outdoor activities. By the time the fair closes there is no doubt that the exhibitors are happy: “Your students are great – so engaged, motivated and interesting.” “The room was buzzing from the start.” “What a fabulous school and such a well organised event. The best I have been to for ages.” Many parents offer positive feedback too, and leave armed with brochures – some we suspect may be for their own gap years …

But what of our pupils? Is this type of event beneficial to them? Is a gap year ‘A Good Thing’ or just ‘the thing to do’?

Taking structured time out between school and university or the next stage is an increasingly popular option, and approximately 50% of Bryanston pupils choose to take ‘time out’ following their IB/A levels. For those who are unsure of what they want to do next, or are not feeling quite ready for work or university, a gap year may be exactly what is needed. Others may want to take stock or improve grades, have a desire to give something back through volunteering, or may want to develop new skills, meet new people, travel, have fun or broaden horizons – while gaining experience that will enhance a personal statement, CV, or an overseas application. As well as organised breaks via specialist providers, an increasing number of academic short courses are available too, which can be a useful option for anyone who is unsure of what they want to study at university.

In true Bryanston tradition, the greatest benefits of a gap year involve the chance to develop as an individual:
  • Developing greater self-reliance, self-awareness and motivation
  • Strengthening personal skills
  • Increasing cultural awareness
  • Contributing positively to the wider world
  • Exploring new opportunities and seeing the world with new eyes
  • The chance to have an adventure and to make new friends
The vast majority who take a gap break have wonderful experiences and few regrets. However, life beyond the Bryanston ‘bubble’ can seem daunting if no plans are in place, so the most satisfactory gap years tend to be planned at least partially in advance, and goals are often grouped into blocks of time, such as: three months working/raising funds, three months gaining a new skill, three months volunteering, three months of fun and relaxation before the next stage. This is where the gap providers have a real role to play, in providing a structured first step towards the future.

What do universities think about gap years? 

This will depend on the course and the university, and needs to be checked carefully and directly with the institution concerned. Generally however, universities and colleges see the benefit of pupils taking a gap year – provided there is evidence that the year will be used to do something positive and constructive. (Doing a ski season or working in the local wine bar have their value, but on their own they are unlikely to provide a competitive edge.)

What do employers think about gap years? 

Employers tend to favour candidates who are self-motivated, reliable, with a mature approach and who can demonstrate transferable skills. For many, taking a gap year can provide valuable breathing space, to increase personal confidence and allow these attributes to develop.

But back to the fair… 

Many pupils will also have attended one of the gap workshops offered at the A3 HE/Careers Forum in February. Do they now have a greater understanding of their next steps?

“I am thinking of taking a gap year because it is the best opportunity to travel around the world and make some money as well. We have been in school for our whole life so far (pretty much) and so taking a year off is a perfect way to break this routine before going into uni or getting a career.”

“I am taking a gap year because I want a year out to have fun and work. Plus I think I’d be too young to go [to university] straight away. I also think it’s a good chance to go and visit places I’ve never seen before.”

“I would love to hike the Appalachian trail. This trail will take around 6 months and this year presents the perfect time to do this. … I am also going to work for the other 6 months so I can save up some money to help me through uni.”

And what was their impression of the gap fair? It was not a complete solution, but was it worthwhile?

“The gap fair on Tuesday was a brilliant way of getting an idea of what to do for the year… perfect for someone who is thinking of taking a gap year.”

“I thought it was good but I could have looked a lot of it up on the internet. Plus there were lots of skiing companies so if u weren’t doing a season, it was quite limited.”

“Talking to the exhibitors encouraged me to open my thoughts on other activities to do on my year. … The exhibitors are all very enthusiastic about their 'adventure' and so it is extremely helpful talking to them.”

Taking a gap year is by no means right for everyone. For those who are venturing down a mathematical or science-related route there can be very sound reasons not to ‘press pause’ before continuing their studies. But for some pupils, the best reason of all for choosing to take a gap year is quite possibly the fear of taking one. In words sometimes attributed to Mark Twain (1835-1910): 
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” 
Many who went straight to work from school some years ago, will share that sentiment.


Should I take a gap year?

Three articles that may help you to decide:

For further advice:

Whether staying in the UK or travelling abroad, our goal is to encourage students to open their minds to possibilities while also staying safe. Not all gap organisations are created equal and the gap sector is unregulated. The Year Out Group provide a useful starting point for guidance:

Ethical alliances:

There are ethical and practical considerations to bear in mind, particularly in relation to volunteering or working abroad.

Remain travel aware and stay safe:

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is an essential reference for those travelling overseas:

Short courses:

Gap breaks can involve study too.

About Futurewise:

The Futurewise Gap Fair at Bryanston is biennial. The full list is available here.