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Daniel Stucke

Slumdog Pythagoras – Minimally Invasive Education

7 min read

Inspired by Sugata Mitra at the SSAT National Conference I decided to try and ape his 'minimally invasive education' within my own Maths classroom.

In a really tough December week this two hours shone out as a great teaching and learning experience.

Before going any further, please head over to my previous post to read about the inspiration for this lesson.

In a nutshell, Sugata discovered that children can teach themselves with the aid of the Internet.  His hole-in-the-wall experiment inspired the book that inspired the film Slumdog Millionaire.  He has since been investigating how to apply these findings in Western school systems.

I followed some basic rules that Sugata has developed.  I split the students into groups, each with a computer and then gave them a problem to solve.

The rules are simple:

  • Students were told to get into groups of their choice of around 4 children.
  • They had one laptop per group.
  • They could walk around and cheat, looking at what the other groups were doing.
  • They could move groups if they wanted to.
  • No input from me other than some encouragement and praise.

My Year 7 class (11-12 year olds) are an able group who I have done a little group work earlier this year.  I gave them a simple question:

Who was Pythagoras?

And with it, the text (but not diagram) of a typical GCSE question:

A ladder is leaning against a wall.  It is 5 meters long, the base of the ladder is 3.5 meters away from the wall.  How far up the wall does it reach?

At that point, I pretty much put my feet up and left them to it for the next two hours.  The maths involved is traditionally not taught to pupils of this ability for at least another 2 1/2 years.  It would be considered as being about 2-3 National Curriculum levels above their current ability.

To say I was surprised and delighted with the next 90 minutes would be an understatement!

Two groups in particular shone at this task and took very different approaches to reaching the correct solution:

Mathematical Logic: An enthusiastic group of girls split into two pairs, one pair hit Google and quickly found Pythagoras' Theorem, a diagram of a right angle triangle and the formula a²+b²=c².  The other pair started drawing a scale drawing of the problem and within minutes had a fairly close estimate of the ladder problem.  These girls had done little algebra before, they had certainly not substituted into equations, let alone rearranged them.  However I watched them equate the ladder and wall to the example right angle triangle, substitute in the values I had given them in the problem, and begin a discussion about how to find b².  They correctly deduced that to find the missing value "if they are added together, then we need to subtract the 3.5² from the 5² to find b²".  Perfect mathematical logic!  They then got a little stuck as they had never come across the concept of a square root before.  Halving their value was the first attempt, but they quickly saw that this was nowhere near the value they had got from their scale drawing.  Dividing by 3 was the next logical step for them (a triangle has 3 sides afterall they declared!), again this didn't work out close enough to their estimate.  At this point they went back to the Internet and found some examples of solving problems of this nature.  Here they stumbled across the square root sign, quickly understood the concept of a square root and then found the button on their calculators, and next the correct solution to the problem.  Quite amazing!  They produced a poster to show their learning:

Other than a little confusion with square and square root symbols, an impressive effort.

Search and yee shall find: A group of three boys attacked this problem by searching for information using both the laptop and also the resources in the room.  They found out who Pythagoras was thanks to Wikipedia.  But they also started looking through the GCSE Maths books in the room and even found a revision guide.  They found an example question in one of the books that was another leaning ladder question.  They used this to quickly find the answer to the problem that I had set them.  This might not have involved the mathematical deduction that I had watched the girls use, but it was an impressively efficient effort, and is just how I learn things these days.  Search on the Internet, find some examples of what I want to do and adapt these methods.  I put another question on the board, this time finding the hypotenuse of the triangle.  The boys found a great '3 quick steps to solving Pythagoras' from the revision guide and applied this to the problem in no time at all.  They produced this presentation of their learning:

Of all the groups, these two groups developed a good understanding of Pythagoras' Theorem with no help at all.  Two other groups got there after a little bit of peeking at the work of the first two groups (well within the rules), and two groups did not get very far.  This was down to a lack of teamwork, something we can work on in coming weeks, these pupils are only 11 years old after all.  Overall in the two hours we managed to learn: Pythagoras' Theorem - done!  Square roots - done!  Substituting & rearranging algebraic equations - well on the way!

I will be interested to see how well this learning is retained.  Sugata Mitra's work seems to show that months later retention from this form of learning is impressive.  I'll be delighted if the class can solve a problem next week, and even more so if it's still there after the Christmas break.

This was such a success I will try it out with all my classes this week.  It's the last full week of term, always a tricky time to keep the pupils engaged, it seems an ideal time to try out a different way of learning.  I'll be intrigued to see how this works, particularly with my lower ability Year 8s.  I think the success I had with this trial was in part due to the excellent learning habits that class already had and in the pitch of the question.  It offered just the right amount of challenge, and was relatively easy to search for online.

With that in mind, this week I will try the following:

  • Year 7 (NC Level 5-6):  Independent Probability: How do you find the probability of two independent events happening? What is the probability of winning the lottery?  What is the problem of getting 5 out of 6 balls in the lottery?
  • Year 8 (NC Level 3-4):  nth Term of Sequences: How do you find the 100th number in a sequence?  Present with a sequence problem from diagrams e.g. matchsticks and ask for the 100th term.
  • Year 10 (GCSE Grades E-D):  Sine Rule: How do you find the area of a scalene triangle? Present with triangle to find area of.
  • Year 11 (GCSE Grades D-C): Transforming Graphs: What is the equation of this graph? (Transformed sine wave - pupils have not come across sine waves before)

What do you think?  Are these suitable questions?  Have you tried anything similar in your classroom?  Will you try this method of enquiry based learning now?  I'd be really interested to here your views and experiences.

As this is a fairly hands-off form of teaching I may try and live-tweet the lessons - we'll see how things go.

Daniel Stucke

SSAT #NC10 – Sugata Mitra

6 min read


Sugata Mitra is currently Professor of Educational Technology at the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences at Newcastle University.  He has spent many years in a huge number of research posts.  With regards to education he is most famous for his Hole In The Wall Experiment whereby he put an Internet enabled PC in the wall of an Indian slum in 1999 and left it there for anyone to use.

You can see the talk here, or watch his similar TED talk here.


Sugata was charming and engaging.  The driving message that he had was that given some time and an Internet connection, children are quite proficient at teaching themselves.

He first discovered this in his now famous Hole In The Wall experiment.  I won't go over the details of that here as you can watch the videos above or read about it in detail on Wikipedia or it's own dedicated website.  Sugata explained that he did not go looking for this effect, however his experiments demonstrated that, even in the absence of any direct input from a teacher, an environment that stimulates curiosity can cause learning through self-instruction and peer-shared knowledge. Sugata calls this minimally invasive education.

Part of the original thoughts behind this experiment and Sugata's subsequent work was that there are areas of the World where for a variety of reasons young people cannot access good schools or good teachers.  These reasons are more obvious in places like rural India, but Sugata argued that this was the case also in some of our inner city areas of the UK.  Sugata went on to describe the work he has been doing in and around Gateshead.  He has taken his ideas of minimally invasive education and developed a model for use in the UK school system.

In Gateshead he has been working in a number of schools.  In each he has been working with teachers to give groups of 4 pupils extended periods to investigate questions as a group with the aid of one laptop per group.  Sugata was convinced that pupils worked better in this model in groups, with 4 being the optimum.  He also said that they quickly found that 1 laptop per group was more efficient and becoming of group interactions than one each.  Groups are allowed, almost encouraged to steal findings from other teams and pass them off as their own!

Groups of young pupils (Year 7 - 11years old) have been given a number of GCSE questions to solve, many (5) years before they would normally encounter them.  They have been tested on them immediately after working on them, and 6 months later in rows of individual desks.  Results show that this knowledge is retained exceptionally well.

Interestingly, this at first seemed to fly in the face of the Government White Paper, and indeed much of Dylan Wiliam's evidence that the most important factor in a child's education is the teacher in front of them.  I was fortunate to have coffee with Sugata after his speech and put this to him.  He was quite clear that he was not advocating the removal of the teacher, although I did love his quote from Arthur C Clarke: "A teacher who can be replaced by a machine, should be".  Sugata explained to me that in his opinion the key to successful minimally invasive education is to pose the right question in the first place.  I'd be interested to learn more about exactly what kind of questioning / modeling was most effective in setting up successful learning.

Sugata also talked of his 'grandmother effect'.  First investigated during one of his hole in the wall experiments, Sugata used older volunteers to do little more than encourage and regularly praise the young learners.  In the Kalikuppam experiment Sugata found that  scores improved from 30% to 50% with the aid of a 'grandmother', also dubbed a 'mediator'.  This idea was developed later with the use of real grandmothers and retired teachers in NW England Skyping in to the classrooms of India to encourage the learners there.  This seems to fly in the face of some of Dylan Wiliam's assertions that praise only feedback has little or no effect on learning.  Perhaps this is down to the contrasting learning environments?  Dylan's research will have been based mainly in traditional classrooms with traditional teaching models whereas Sugata's classrooms were many miles away from them in geography and teaching styles.

So would you use the ideas behind minimally invasive education within your own classroom?  Would your timetable allow you the chance to do so?  Have you worked like this before?  It's certainly a fascinating and beguiling idea that students can do so much on their own.  Is this the ultimate example of the (worn out) adage of the 'guide on the side' taking over from the 'sage on the stage'?

My Notes

Sugata Mitra - the future of learning.

"When I need to know something I can find it out in 5 minutes"

We have problems of relevance and aspiration.

Weak negative correlation of council house % vs results - 'rough' teacher recruitment?

Hole in the wall pc in a slum.

Children taught themselves English to use machine! Groups of children can learn to use computers themselves irrespective of who or where they are.

Hyderabad, left pupils with speech to text software and left them to be understood! They downloaded Oxford English dictionary, listened and spoke back in BBC English accent. One now works in call centre!

Children invented pedagogy. Arthur C Clarke "a teacher who can be replaced by a machine should be"

9 months in, English language had improved and deep learning increased. Pupils had found Google!

Groups of children can navigate the Internet to achieve educational objectives on their own. Hypothesis.

Kalikuppam experiment - teach improper DNA replication to themselves? 30% in test. Up to 50% with grandmother technique of standing behind and praising! In line with best schools in deli.

Gateshead experiment. 30 kids, groups of 4, one laptop per group. Allowed to steal from groups and claim as their own! 6 gcse qs solved in 20mins - y7. Sat in rows 6 months later, in rows, scores the same!

Grandmothers - 40 retired teachers skyped into Hyderabad.

Group children, investigate questions, teacher frames questions right, use group rules, pupils investigate as far as they can.

Self organising system where learning takes place on its own.

Daniel Stucke

SSAT #NC10 - Dr David Hemery

2 min read


David Hemery, Olympic Gold 400m hurdles winner, now working on the 21st Century Legacy as part of the London 2012 Legacy programme.

My Notes

Dr David Hemery vice chairman British Olympic association. 21st century legacy.

Incredible amount of untapped potential in everyone.

Hi achievers have self awareness and self responsibility. Study in sport and business.

Be the best you can be! Programme. Aiming to inspire, engage and empower young people.

How to of empowerment is coaching/facilitation and a child centred approach. Generates awareness and responsibility.

Programme involves getting an Olympian into a school to tell their story and then to push back on the pupils to ask them what is their dream and what do they need to get there. how can they empower themselves to get there.

Coaching framework follows delivered through pshe or similar.

Coach Billy "just take the first step"!

Coaching question "What would it take for you to take the first step?" encourage.


David was charming and passionate.  His tales of his coach Billy pushing him to and beyond the limit by asking him to "Just take the first step" were inspiring.

'Taking the first step' is at the heart of David's 21st Century Legacy project.  At heart it involves getting an Olympian or similar successful sportsman in to school to tell their tale of success.  From here support is given to allow teachers to coach pupils, asking them what their dreams are and what it would take for them to 'take the first step' on the path to that dream.

All the details of the project are available here:

Key Questions

How do we remove the barriers to learning? Inspiring dreams and coaching students to take the first step on that path seems like a great way to remove barriers to learning.  Fitted in nicely with this conference theme.

Daniel Stucke

SSAT #NC10 – Dylan Wiliam – Formative Assessment

8 min read

The first of a series of notes / reflections on sessions at the 2010 SSAT National Conference.


Dylan Wiliam has the grand title of 'Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment' at the Institute of Education in London.  He is a former Maths teacher and co-author of the book "Inside the Black Box".  He is a world renowned expert on assessment for learning, and was recently to be seen on BBC television in The Classroom Experiment.

My Notes

On learning environments & the role of the teacher: Teachers do not create learning.  Learners create learning.  Teaching is engineering of effective learning environments. Teachers should create engagement.  Learning environments should be regulated. Teachers should know when students are learning.  We should develop habits of mind.

On intelligence & environment: Intelligence is partly inherited.  IQ is the best predictor of GCSE performance. Predicts job placement/selection as you get older as people choose cognitive niches.  Environments create intelligence.  Intelligence creates environment.  We must create environments that challenge, foster high cognitive demand and are inclusive. We create amplifiers of success. E.g. January ice hockey players, picked young due to size, get the coaching & time - gaps increase.

On flow: Flow = match between challenge and capability. Csikszentmihalyi.  Children don't learn what we teach, this is why assessment is core.

On assessment: Pre tests. Diagnosis and remediation.  Manage flow of learning, goals vs horizons. Sometimes ok to move off the planned track. Don't test on the exact skill, generalise and test on application of that knowledge. Differentiate in terms of context and generalisation of knowledge.

5 key strategies in teaching:

  • Clarifying, Understanding and sharing intentions.
  • Engineering effective discussions, tasks and activities that elicit evidence of learning
  • Provide feedback to move forward.
  • Activate students as learning resources for one another
  • Best teachers clear about start, route, readings along way, change course where needed.

On feedback & questioning: Middle class kids 'get the code', working class are no less intelligent just don't get what we want. Nodding, smiling, giving positive feedback to teacher when they know it is wanted.  Make the rules of the game clear to stop the game of 'guess what's in the teachers head'. Posters of key words and rules of learning. Make own tests. Write tests for class next door. Pseudonyms mean they can mark as well.  Don't give pupils a choice of being picked. No hands-up rule.   Keep them all on their toes and engaged.

Plan questions carefully to elicit understanding, not incorrect methods that are resulting in right answers. Old adage of giving pupils enough time to respond, average time by UK teachers is less than a second.  Cause thinking. Good questions depend upon the knowledge base of the students. Open/closed not bad. Cause thinking. Questions should be designed to provide data to inform teaching.  Marking is the penance for bad planning of learning!

Wait time for questioning. Think pair share if needed. Move locus of question around a classroom, answer, elaboration, evaluation. Back to original kid if needed to repeat answer and stay engaged - no opt-out no-hands up. Random pupil selection often less random than you'd think. Otherwise you are making the achievement gap worse.

Most teachers ask questions where you learn nothing from answers unless you hear the explanations. Right wrong questions no use for checking understanding. Have two correct answers out of six to choose from, if they all pick the right two then MOVE ON! Create questions with answers that highlight the common misconceptions, with enough possible answers that guessing is factored out. Drill down into the wrong answers. Hinge question based on important concept that future learning based on. Design questions with all right or all wrong answers. More than one right answer. Questions must be designed so that kids with the wrong thinking get a different answer. Right thinking must be the only way to the right answer.

Forget AfL in terms of record keeping, make teaching more agile and reflective. Mini whiteboards, use 1-5 fingers held up for abcde optional answers to questions posed.

On written feedback: Crucial to give comment and a chance to effect change within the classroom. Avoid grades, no benefit at all, and negates comments if two given together. Sometimes useful to delay feedback, can be too quick, e.g. Computer based feedback leads to trial and improvement techniques. Oliver & DeNisi 1996 meta-research showed effect sizes highly variable, 40% made progress WORSE. Hard!

Key points:

  • Cause thinking. Response needed is to change behaviour or change goal.
  • Should be more work for the recipient than the donor. (maths, '5 are wrong - you find them')
  • Tell them what they can do to move forward.
  • Comment only marking.
  • Focussed marking, numbered responses/questions from their work. Not what's wrong, "what's next?" All pupils get same volume of work to do.
  • Refining assessment. 3/4 way through test. Read not mark, plan final 1/4 based on those tests.
  • Same roles and methods used for individuals and peers as to teacher based assessment.
  • Assessment is the bridge between teaching and learning. Best assessment leaves no mark in a book but leads to more learning.
  • 100 AfL techniques in a box available from the SSAT


This is the second time I have had the fortune of hearing Dylan speak in person.  However I have been aware of his work since writing an essay based on his book "Inside the Black Box" whilst completing my PGCE back at the dawn of my teaching career.  The first reflection is that Dylan's reliance on evidence based practice is admirable, each piece of advice is backed up with evidence from a myriad of university studies.  Whilst I suppose this shouldn't come as a surprise for such a respected Professor, it is so often not the case in education.

Dylan went to great lengths to model his methods with the room of 400+ people.  Encouraging group discussion with clear signals (hands up for everyone) when he needed our attention., along with asking random people in the audience (including those at the back!) for their answers.

The message at the heart of this session was that assessment is at the heart of good teaching.  Dylan reflected that pupils often don't learn what we teach them, sometimes they learn things that we hadn't even planned.  It is our role as educators to create environments within which they can learn together and then to use assessment as a means of focussing the learning onto the next steps.  Kristian and I had a discussion about pre-tests, and how little these seem to be used within schools.  How often are pupils taught things that they already know?  How much time is wasted in our classrooms due to only completing assessments at the end of a unit of work.

There was much to take from Dylan seminar.  I will be making a renewed effort to think carefully about the questions that I pose in my lessons.  Questioning is one of the most difficult and poorly practiced parts of teaching. Dylan had many tips on phrasing verbal and designing written questions that I will be taking back to my teaching and to my department.  I will continue to promote Dylan's words that effective AfL is not to be found as ticks in books or as marks in grade books.  As a school we are having a renewed push on the quality of written feedback, I have designed some marking stickers for whole school use and will share these here when they are ready.  I will take the ideas about the learning environment back to our school and see if we can improve this whole school, promoting no hands up rules and also clear signage in classrooms.  I love the idea of pupils writing exam questions and will be using this extensively, particularly with my Y10 & 11 classes.

Key Questions

The conference was based around 3 key questions, I'll attempt to reflect on how each seminar helped answer these questions.

What should students learn? New things!  Using assessment before teaching to avoid wasting time covering old ground.

How should students learn? Collaboratively, in an environment that engages and stimulates them. By being given the time and opportunity to respond to feedback and questioning that has been designed to move learning on to the next level.

How do we remove the barriers to learning? Do not allow the enthusiastic to grow in confidence and skill whilst the weaker and disengaged hide on the fringes and watch the gap grow wider.  Make classroom learning rules clear to all.


Dylan's presentation slides are available on his website.

Daniel Stucke

SSAT National Conference 2010 #NC10 – Initial Thoughts

5 min read

The SSAT National Conference took place last week at the ICC in Birmingham (a venue rightly compared to Escher's Relativity!).  I was fortunate to be able to attend as a punter on the Wednesday and as a presenter on the Thursday as we launched the SSAT National Digital Leaders programme!

The theme of the conference was 'Excellence for All', and I have to say that the SSAT delivered , each aspect of the conference itself was excellent.

Wednesday started for me with Dylan Wiliam extolling the importance of assessment being the key to good teaching.  He was as inspiring a speaker as ever, as those of you who watched his recent TV program would know.  In particular I was impressed with Dylan's ability to demonstrate his techniques within a 'classroom' of 400 educators, and also his incredible use of research evidence to support his teachings.

Wednesday Keynotes came from David Hemery, former 400m Hurdles Gold medal winning Olympian, he was telling his story and promoting , part of London 2012's legacy programme for schools.  He was followed by Sugata Mitra, telling his engaging tale of children teaching themselves using the Internet, from his hole-in-the-wall Mumbai slums experiment to his recent work in Gateshead.  This was an engaging tale that at first seemed to question the need for teachers at all!  As with all the speakers, more to follow in a future blog-post.  I would add that I was fortunate enough to chat to Sugata over coffee following his talk, a charming man.

Wednesday at the conference ended for me with Mark Dawes and Paul Hynes discussing how to use existing buildings to support 21st century learning.

Wednesday evening was spent at Shimla Pinks for a curry with friends and colleagues that have been involved with the Digital Leaders programme, including Kristian Still, Bob Harrison, Len Daniels. Great stuff!

The Conservatives released their White Paper "The Importance of Teaching" on the Wednesday, Thursday began with the Minister for Schools Nick Gibb (Michael Gove was somewhat busy and did not attend as planned).  Interesting to hear first hand some of the rationale from Mr Gibb, but I have to say he was somewhat clinical about it all, and was given a specific grilling on the plans to scrap funding for Sports Partnerships in school.

The drab Mr Gibb was followed by the sparkling Tanya Byron, who had many a delegate slightly smitten by the end of her passionate talk about bringing schools up-to-date in this digital era.  She set things up perfectly for our Digital Leaders launch later that day, telling us all to "Embrace the technologies that pupils use e.g. Phones, or shut up shop and go home."

Final morning keynote came from the excellent Dan Pink, former speech writer to Al Gore.  Dan gave an insightful talk about giving staff and students time for autonomy so as to foster engagement.  Dan offered the presentation advice of brevity, levity and repetition, so I'll stop talking there!

At lunch I got a great demonstration of RealSmartCloud, the Google AppsWordpressRealsmart based VLE.  Thanks to Si Brown for the demo, it was great to see learning at the heart of a VLE, definitely something I'll be investigating further.

After lunch I saw a presentation about raising achievement at KS4, it was good to see that we have been doing many of the tips for years!  This was followed by Shadow Education Secretary Andy Burnham.  Andy gave a fairly passionate speech about his education beliefs and his thoughts on the White Paper.  But he was noticeably lacking in policy, whilst this is understandable at such an early stage in this parliament, it is still important that Labour get into the habit of being in opposition, before the Conservatives pass through many wide-ranging reforms with little or no resistance.  Spontaneous applause rang round the hall as he questioned the sports funding decision.

Final task of the conference was the nerve wracking job of helping to launch the Digital Leaders programme nationally.  My eternal thanks to Kristian StillBob HarrisonLen Daniels & Paul Hynes for pushing this project to the point where we can invite schools from across the country to take part.  I look forward excitedly to seeing it flourish.

The aim of the conference was to look towards providing 'excellence for all' by investigating what & how students should learn and how to push down the barriers to learning.  From David Hemery's question of "what it would take to take the first step" to the work of Dylan Wiliam & Sugata Mitra & Tany Byron pushing my thoughts about the role of a teacher in the 21st century it was a great few days.

I will delve into my thoughts in greater detail in a series of posts this week relating to each speaker / session that I attended.  If you're interested in any of the above now then many of the keynote sessions are available to watch online.


Post 2: Dylan Wiliam

Post 3: David Hemery

Post 4: Sugata Mitra