Category Archives: teaching

Filling in the learning gaps


In our math study group sessions, we often find ourselves reviewing lessons that the kids briefly covered in school but hadn’t absorbed. For example, one of the kids was having a hard time with long division. “This is going to take a long time,” he said. He sounded hesitant, so I offered to help him review long division while W- gave the other kids additional exercises. I shared the mnemonic that helped J- learn long division: Dracula Must Suck Blood, which reminds people to divide, multiply, subtract, and then bring down the next number. We got through double-digit division, remainders, and decimal points, although he still needs to practise until he gets division down pat.

J- has moments like that with her schoolwork, too, so it’s good that we have these study sessions. The kids had taken up algebraic expressions before, but drew blanks when I turned our straightforward price + tax exercise into an exercise along the lines of “Let’s say I want to sell a shirt for $30 after tax, which is 13%. What should the initial price be?” So we did a quick review of algebra, and we’ll do more next week.

The kids’ classroom lessons are currently focused on a simulation of real life. They have jobs, and must balance their income and their expenses. Some are entrepreneurs, and some work at companies. They’re learning about business, advertising, accounting, and communication. They’ve even filed income tax returns. The teachers (also known as the Sometimes Benevolent Force in-game) occasionally shake things up. I think it’s an interesting idea.

This integrated, real-life-focused learning does leave little time to review lessons or build a sense of mastery in basic skills, and J- sometimes has a hard time talking about the specific lessons she’s learning from the exercise. That’s one of the reasons why we’ve been stepping up our involvement, tutoring J- and organizing these study groups. The teachers are doing their best, and I think the program might be more useful than a plain-vanilla-teach-to-the-textbook approach. Filling in the gaps at home is much more effective than waxing nostalgic or wringing our hands in worry.

It helps to understand that it’s normal for some things to be missed. No school is perfect, no teacher is perfect, and no student is perfect. It takes repeated exposure and practice to learn something – as I learn and re-learn myself, stretching with these projects and hobbies. =)

Math and energy

We’ve been hosting math study groups over at our place every Friday afternoon, and occasionally on other days too. Today we reviewed the multiplication table, and adding and multiplying fractions (even mixed numbers!). We also snuck in a preview of dividing fractions (mindboggling!) and some letters from the Greek alphabet (with brief excursions into pi, trigonometry, and others).

They had been practising! The kids rattled off the multiples of six, seven, and eight with growing confidence. They only needed a little reminder to handle addition and multiplication of fractions.

After they told me how their teacher had sprung a brainteaser on them (24, 68, 101, 214, …), I shared this one: 31, 28, 31, 30, 31, 30, 31… They solved it after a hint, and looked very excited about the idea of possibly stumping their teachers. And then there’s this other one they left the house with: 3, 3, 5, 4, 4, 3, 5, 5, 4, 3, 6, …

“I didn’t know how a math study group could be fun,” one of the parents said, “but now I see how.” She had joined us a little early to find out what it was like. Her son was practically begging us for a chance to do the multiplication tables, so we did another round of them, with the grown-ups joining in too. =)

What’s it like hosting a study group at our place? We aren’t like the tutors I remember from home: the quiet one who helped my sister with math and other subjects, or the ones who came to our house to help us with Chinese. W- and I have tons of fun teaching. We come up with examples and exercises, throw in all sorts of zany ideas, sneak in advanced material as well as confidence-building reviews.

I really like the small group format. I can bring even more energy to that than I remember from my days of teaching computer science in university, and I can modify the lessons and exercises faster. It’s like the thrill of an especially interactive presentation, except that I get to actually see what people do with the ideas in the end. I can see the aha! moments happen, see progress week after week.

I’m so glad we’re doing this. I wonder how we can share more of what we’re doing, maybe help more kids and parents gain confidence too…

2011-03-11 Fri 20:56

Conversations: Stian Håklev

Stian Håklev is passionate about education – and in particular, the richness of different cultures and perspectives. Here are some notes from a fascinating conversation I had with him at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, where he’s doing his PhD.


(larger version)

… and it wasn’t all questions, either – he has lots of ideas!

You can read his thesis at or check out the peer-to-peer education site he’s working on, where they’ve partnered with the Mozilla Foundation and other people to offer web development and other courses. Sample creative assignment: draw the Internet!

Stian’s passionate about open access, open research, multiculturalism, peer-to-peer education, and other interesting things. He’s hooked into Mozilla Foundation and the Center for Social Innovation. What else can he look at and who can he talk to? Possibly related: Open Notebook Science, LearnHub, Third Culture Kids, DemoCampToronto (to show his peer-to-peer education site and ask for tips?)

Do these questions strike a chord with you? Get in touch with Stian and make cool stuff happen!

Exponential awesomeness


@smeech I recently built an entire workshop around Sacha Chua‘s Teacher’s Guide to Web 2.0: Watch/Do/Teach was our mantra

@sachac Sacha! Your presentation provided a perfect, low-stress, socratic & fun contextual frame for my day-long workshop. We had a ball!


kjarrett on Twitter

@sachac LOVE your stuff! I use a couple of your slideshares for an online Web 2.0 class I facilitate. GR8 job! Keep em coming!

jdornberg on Twitter

This is why sharing is so cool. Even if I don’t have the time, ability, or network to explore the opportunities opened up by what I’ve learned, I can share those thoughts with other people, and they can go and do something awesome.

I put together the Teacher’s Guide to Web 2.0 at School because I needed to make a presentation to kick off the school year for 90 teachers. Since then, it’s been viewed over 20,000 times. More than 150 people have shared it on their blogs. I haven’t explored it further. I haven’t even posted any notes. In particular, slide #25 probably needs more explanation than the few keywords I put on there to help people remember after my talk. But it’s enough to tickle people’s imaginations, and the simplicity lets them fill in their own insights.

I like this. The more I share, the more awesome things I get to see, and the more inspired I am to share.

What can you share so that other people can build on it?

Every teachable moment


What is it like being a geek? It means being surrounded by opportunities to teach, even at the dinner table.

One of the LEGO magazine issues had included a pair of 3-D glasses. The issue had been tossed out due to a large number of jam stains, but the 3-D glasses were still on the kitchen table.

I put the 3-D glasses on. Things around me shifted from red to blue-green, depending on which eye dominated that part of my mental picture. I could influence which color I saw at a point by mentally favouring one eye or the other, but I couldn’t get the scene to be one colour unless I closed one of my eyes. Interesting.

I explained my observations to W- and J-. Curious, J- borrowed the 3-D glasses and put them on.

“Cool,” she said, looking around, as I told her about eye dominance.

Then I took a red pen from the pen holder and rolled it towards her.

“Wow! That looks white!” She switched eyes. “Now it looks black!”

Then I showed her a blue pen. She tried looking at the pens with both eyes, then with one eye, then the other.

W- and I explained a bit of colour theory along the way.

What is it like being a geek? It means recognizing that every little thing has a mystery that can be unfolded and explored.

What can I help you learn? Looking for mentees

Update 2013-07-17: Fixed contact form link

As awkward as “mentee” sounds (I feel like I’m looking for minty sweets), it’s the preferred word at IBM. Protégé smacks of the old boys’ club, I guess.

One of my priorities for 2010 is to share what I’m learning with even more people. The slow way is to reflect on what I’ve learned, write blog posts, and package that up as presentations and podcasts. The fast way is to find people who want to learn what I’ve learned (and am learning), braindump ideas in response to their questions, and make them responsible for writing up notes and further sharing what we’ve learned.

Mentoring people is much better than braindumping things on my own because:

  • We focus on what’s valuable to people
  • Questions prompt me to think
  • Questions mean I don’t skip over anything I haven’t explained well enough
  • Other people’s perspectives (like yours!) enrich the content
  • We can reach more people

Some of the things I’d be happy to explore through mentorship or peer-mentorship, roughly in order of interest (top interests first):

  1. Patterns and tools for community interaction through social media
  2. Presentation organization
  3. Presentation design
  4. Blogging (topics, editing/wordsmithing, exploration, general website ideas, but not technical help with WordPress)
  5. Presentation delivery (particularly remote)
  6. Visual thinking, notetaking, mindmapping, and information visualization
  7. Connecting and networking, particularly as an introvert
  8. Figuring life out, finding and following your passion
  9. Scaling up and getting better personal ROI on your effort
  10. Delegation, virtual assistance, outsourcing, and working with coaches
  11. Creativity and brainstorming
  12. Technology adoption and evangelism
  13. Editing and wordsmithing
  14. Productivity
  15. Cooking, baking, gardening, sewing, and other aspects of domestic bliss
  16. Getting on board as a new hire
  17. Getting used to life abroad
  18. Frugal personal finance
  19. Social networking (which tools to use when)

I can give occasional tips on Drupal and Emacs, but I’m not focused on Drupal development at the moment, and there are much more active Emacs geeks out there.

If you think of a topic that you’d like to learn about that you know I can help you with, suggest it too. =)

How it might work:

  1. Leave a comment on any relevant blog post with your question, use the handy contact form, or e-mail your questions to me at [email protected] . No mentoring relationship required. =) I like questions! I get to think about them and blog what I’ve learned.
  2. Contact me with an introduction and what you’re interested in. I prefer to communicate through blogs, e-mail, or the phone (with blogs preferred the most). We can set up a 20-minute or 50-minute call and chat about what’s on your mind.
  3. If it turns out we’ve got lots to talk about and we mesh well together, let’s set up recurring calls and have an ongoing conversation. If lots of people have similar questions, it would be interesting to set up group conferences or a community so that we can all learn from each other.

“Pay me back” by sharing your thoughts and actions taken. =)  I don’t want ideas to disappear into single conversations. If so, I might as well just blog about it myself, and help way more people. Share as much as you can of what we learn. At the minimum, please send me your notes. Better yet, blog, podcast, videocast, or otherwise share what we talked about. We all win!

So, how can I help you or someone you know?