RISPS: Jonny Griffiths' 2005-6 Gatsby Teaching Fellowship
15 March 2007
You are a mathematics teacher in a dilemma. You want a fresh challenge for the year ahead, but there is no promotion available in your current school and you don’t want to move to a new one. You love the classroom and don’t want to leave it. Is there any way out of this? Can I make a suggestion? Consider applying for a Gatsby Teacher Fellowship.
10 September 2007
For me it all begain in January 2005 when I happened to be visiting the MEI website.
An advert caught my eye: Deadline for Gatsby Teacher Fellowship applications Jan 14th. It was January 2nd. Curious, I visited the GTF website (www.gtf.org.uk) to read this:
The aim of the GTF programme is to identify teachers of maths, science and design and technology who can make a significant contribution to the effective and inspirational teaching of their subject.
I investigated further. ‘A Teacher Fellow undertakes a curriculum development project for an academic year,' I read, 'Supported by £3000 of Gatsby funding, which can be spent on equipment, INSET, supply cover, or anything that makes the project and its dissemination easier. If the project is adjudged a success, then Gatsby adds a payment of £1000 which goes to the Teacher Fellow himself.’
A frantic two weeks ensued. I knew what my project outline would be: I had been thinking about the use of Rich Starting Points in A Level Maths for a while, and this was a golden opportunity to take the idea further. I wanted to write open-ended investigative activities that would bring the spirit of exploration into the A Level mathematics classroom. There remained the minor hurdle of my application.
Fortunately, Gatsby made the process of applying blessedly easy, asking for nothing more than a one-page CV, a one-page budget and a one-page letter outlining what I had in mind. Actually, there was one more request: that my managers should be happy to approve my application. A GTF represents a major work commitment, and it is unlikely to succeed without the whole-hearted support of your bosses.
At the start of February, I was invited to interview. The Gatsby Foundation is one of the Sainsbury Trusts, based in imposing offices just opposite Victoria station. The interview, led by Sue Robinson, the Head of Gatsby’s Mathematics projects, was warm and positive. (GTFs are awarded to teachers in Mathematics, Technology and Science: there are around ten awarded each year across the three disciplines). A fortnight later, to my delight, a letter arrived telling me that I had been successful. I learnt later that Gatsby receive around a hundred applications every year for the ten fellowships they award.
Gatsby ease you into being a Fellow. Your first event takes place at Scarman House, University of Warwick, in July, where you and previous fellows gather to hear the concluding reports of the outgoing Fellows. (In fact, once a Fellow, always a Fellow. There are about 60 Fellows currently, and any new Fellow adds to their number permanently). You have a chance to realise exactly what you have taken on, and to ask advice from those who have just finished their projects. This included adopting a regular pattern of work and setting clear milestones for the realisation of your ideas. And so in September 2005, I started on my Rich Starting Points. I felt in need of an acronym: the word ‘risp’ swiftly suggested itself. I bought the domain name www.risps.net, and designed a logo:
I had built simple websites before, and I did not set myself unmanageable technical demands with this one. I decided that the best way to integrate my Gatsby project into my working life was to post one activity a week for each week of the academic year. I would guarantee the existence of a forty-activity site by the end of the year if I kept to this regime.
Like Dickens publishing his novel chapter by chapter in The Strand, I watched my site slowly but surely grow into maturity. The advantage of this measured approach was that I received feedback as I went along, some direct and some in direct. My site was constantly refined over the year, and it continues to be improved now. Like all meaningful websites, it turned into a labour of love. I included pieces of whimsy and humour, and the result is an intimate account of how I and my students interact in my classroom. In some ways it is closer to a novel than a textbook.
I wanted my RISPS to stimulate student exploration that would lead directly into syllabus topics covering pure mathematics at A Level. Some of this material I devised in the course of the year, while other activities were original material that I had been using in my teaching for a while. It is sometimes said that many A Level maths classrooms still use a Watch me – Now you try approach: I wanted to try an Explore – Reflect together – Now try again model. In my experience, the former methodology deadens, while the latter recreates within the classroom the logic of mathematical discovery, and so brings topics to life. It has the added benefit of differentiating the material naturally, which is hugely important if you have a range of abilities before you.
So how did Gatsby support me in my endeavours? The answer is marvellously. Each GTF is given a mentor to help and advise during the period of the fellowship. I may have looked especially helpless, for I was given two: they both gave me important support at times when I needed it. The funding proved to be extraordinarily useful - I spent it carefully on a projector, a laptop, INSET, software, internet costs, a wireless keyboard and mouse, and 2 500 postcards with which to drum up support.
Throughout I was aware of how well-conceived the GTF scheme is. I had been identified as a practising teacher with good ideas, and I had been given funding that was mine to allocate without having to go through a series of committees and lots of red tape. The whole enterprise still seems to me a really bright way to empower thoughtful teachers who may well be still on the bottom rung of the profession. (Experience shows that having a GTF on your CV helps you take the next step up!).
I inevitably followed my site statistics with trepidation. Between September 1st 2005 and Jan 31st 2007 there were 28 000 visitors (280 000 hits), with the site growing steadily in popularity over that time. 55% of visits came from Europe, and 40% from North America. I have recently made a free ebook of the site available, and in the last three months, 1 500 copies have been downloaded. These numbers may be small compared to many sites, but I think they point to a real and growing interest in the A Level mathematics teacher community. Indeed, one of the joys of building the site has been to make new friends as colleagues try my activities and feed back on their use.
Gatsby ask you to feedback in January, halfway through your project. The venue for this is the Royal Society, which will either fill you with terror or excitement (or both). Then in July, you can put the first draft of your baby to bed, as you present your work to your peers and to those coming after you at Scarman House once more. I enjoyed the presentation side of my GTF greatly, developing my Powerpoint skills along the way. Taking on a GTF will leave you with techniques that you will be glad to have learned.
The main focus of my RISPS project remains that students of A Level mathematics should find their lessons enlivened and their experience of maths deepened by investigative activities at A level. My own experience has been that this is what happens when this kind of task is used wisely. I have asked my students for their thoughts, and almost unanimously they have welcomed the chance to explore before launching into theory. I have heard ‘traditional’ A Level teachers described as Triple-X teachers: explanation, example, exercise. Maybe if they became Four-X teachers, adding ‘exploration’ before the other three, then their practice would be far more enjoyable for both themselves and their students.
Looking back on my GTF, I find it hard to think of another of my career endeavours that has left me feeling so completely positive. The best way to become a better teacher is to associate with those who want to become better teachers. My involvement with Gatsby has enabled me to do exactly that, and I am extremely grateful that the Foundation invited me to take part as it did.