Fasting during exams

Ramadan Mubaruk    رمضان مبروك

What is Ramadan?

Ramadan is the Islamic month of fasting, during which time Muslims do not eat or drink during daylight hours. During the winter months, fasting is not so bad, but in the summer months, Muslims fast for up to 19 hours a day and Ramadan lasts 29 or 30 days.

  • Ramadan 2018 will most likely start on Tuesday 15th May and end on the Thursday 14th June. Here’s a Ramadan timetable from London’s Central Mosque

Here is an article from The Week which answers a few questions about the month of Ramadan.

The main aim of this post is to address the challenge students face during Ramadan and especially those about to sit for their GCSE’s, A levels and University exams.

Healthy Fasting

Students observing the fast should have at least two meals a day, the pre-dawn meal (Suhoor) and a meal at dusk when they break their fast (called Iftar).  Meals should be simple and not differ too much from a normal diet.  Students should avoid junk and sugary foods and aim to top up meals with fruits and lots of water.  Unfortunately, during the summer months, Suhoor which is about 3am and Iftar (around 9pm) are very close together which leave observers a very small window in which to take in all the nutrients their body needs.

Even if breakfast comes before dawn, it’s still the most important meal of your day. Drink at least two glasses of water at every suhoor and follow these tips from dietician Nour el Zibdeh on 27 Foods To Eat At Suhoor That Release Energy Throughout The Day During Ramadan

The NHS has published some useful advice on what to eat and what to avoid. One of the most important things is to try to keep a bottle of water which you should sip from Iftar (the time you break your fast) until Suhoor (the time you stop eating).

Things to Avoid

During Suhoor, try to have a bowl of porridge or other slow-burning foods that will keep you going for longer rather than biscuits or junk cereals like coco pops or frosties which burn very quickly.  You should also, aim to cut down your caffeine intake as much as possible and opt for water instead of fizzy drinks. More information on what to eat can be found HERE.

What should I do if I have an exam on the day?

This is a bit of a ‘grey’ area and ultimately up to the individual.  Teachers and schools would not wish to dictate to religious students how they should address this situation. However, in order to assist students, advice has been sought and the following two options have been identified:

  • Some students may decide not to take any particular steps and to continue with their fast as usual.
  • Some students, in consultation with their religious advisor (Imam), may consider that their examinations are sufficient justification to permit them not to Fast, either just on examination days or perhaps for the whole examination period.  The period of fasting can often be undertaken at a later time or some other arrangement could be considered.

If you decide to fast on the day you have an exam…

  • Prepare the night before by mentally rehearsing the day ahead and note areas which may present difficulties.
  • Ensure you are well rested – this may mean not attending ‘tarawih’ (night prayers in congregation).
  • Make sure you have ‘suhoor’ (a pre-dawn meal) that has slow-release energy food (like porridge).
  • If your exam is in the afternoon, take a short rest of 45 minutes before hand.
  • If you feel lethargic or irritated, refresh your ‘wudu’ (ritual ablution) and go for a short walk.

I hope this post has helped in some way and if you have any questions, please send in your comments below.  If you are still unsure of what you should do, you should speak with your family members and the Imam at your mosque.  Oh, and the greeting during this month is ‘Ramadan Mubarak’ (written in Arabic as رمضان مبروك)

Oh, and no matter what, don’t forget to drink as much water as possible between iftari and suhoor


Further Reading and Useful Links

How schools and Parents can help children that are fasting – easy to follow practical advice for everyone involved in a child’s education including teachers, parents and carers.

Exams and Ramadan: How Can You Make the Best of Both?

Ramadhan Health Guide – supported by the NHS (and another HERE)

Should we tell students to break their fast? Is it up to schools?

Listen to celebrities and other muslims discuss Ramadan and Islam – BBC Asian Network



How to help your child with their maths

Helping your child at home

Maths is something that most people find challenging.  Expectations in Maths have increased over the last 10 years and the following questions are frequently asked by concerned parents when their child is doing homework:   “Is that really the way you are supposed to do it?”  as well as “Is that how they do it now?”

With this in mind, I am in the process of putting together some resources for parents to help their child get the most out of their Maths lessons. Watch this space!  For the time being, I suggest the following to help you help your child:

Where should I start?

Most students struggling with this subject would benefit from “learning the basics“. This means, you could help your child with learning their times-tables (watch video below), basic addition (+), subtraction (-), multiplying (x) and dividing (÷), all without a calculator. You may use any method that you know and feel comfortable with and don’t worry if your child doesn’t get the right answers first time around.  Children learn by making mistakes and making mistakes is one of the most important parts of the learning process.  Don’t overdo it, take breaks from the work and come back to it when your child is not tired or distracted (or get a friend to sit with them).  Above all, when helping your child, make sure you take your time and be super-patient.

Useful Resources:

Learn your tables the fun way – Multiplication made easy using this video.  Learn everything from 6 x 6 to 10 x 10 in minutes! This is one of my favourites.

Oxford Owl Maths supports you with your children’s maths throughout their primary years. You’ll find a whole host of activities including top tips, eBooks and videos to help your child.

if you want more on Multiplication – Here’s a worksheet jammed with questions on all x-tables & division facts and here’s a PDF full of solutions and useful hints.

If the cap fits…Here’s a useful guide for parents on the different methods used in primary schools today to teach arithmetic.  If you find a method that works for your child – use it.  In maths, there are no right and wrong ways of doing things if it gets you to the right answer!

What if my child needs to be challenged?

If this is the case, I recommend visiting these sites:

NRICH – a site run by a team of qualified teachers, NRICH aims to:

  • Provide FREE and interesting mathematical games, problems and articles.
  • Encourage students to share their solutions to mathematical problems.
  • Have mathematicians who can help you to solve problems – just ‘Ask NRICH’!
  • Offer a safe online space where you can meet others with similar interests

UKMT – The UKMT is all about advancing the mathematics education of children up to Y13. They organize competitions & events every year.  The papers are designed to make students think.  They also prepare six very bright mathematicians each year to compete in the Mathematical Olympiad.  Here is a six-part BBC documentary following potential UK team candidates in the run up to the Olympiad and gives you an idea of what it takes to make earn a place on the team.

Furthermore, if you have a child in Year 11 that has an aptitude for Maths, they may be interested in applying to study for their A levels at Kings College’s specialist Maths school in London which is free to attend and state funded.

What if my child needs to start from scratch?

NRICH for parents & Carers – is a good place to start.  NRICH is one of my favorite places on the net.  NRICH offers an engaging way of approaching mathematics to support parents and teachers in developing the initial building blocks for mathematical thinking, reasoning and problem solving with children

My advice to you would be not to pass on your stresses and concerns onto your child.  Your DS or DD may already be aware of their ability in this subject.  MEP from Plymouth University have put together resources from Reception up to Year 6 in case your child has missed lots of school.  On the MEP site, your child can work through the practice book Exercises at the appropriate level and what is more, all resources are free to download.

Schofield and Sims produce brilliant workbooks for mental arithmetic to build confidence and these are used by most prep schools (approx. cost £2.95 each).

Useful websites:

Maths for adults – so you can learn alongside your child to help them

BBC Bitesize for KS1, KS2, KS3 and GCSE

Primary school resources for all subjects – suitable for teachers & Parents

Coxhoe Primary School – a phenomenal amount of work has gone into this site by the staff at Coxhoe. It is full of activities and games for all abilities.

STEP Papers – This is for the most able mathematicians studying for their A levels. STEP papers must be sat if you plan on studying maths related subjects at Cambridge (plus a few other top notch universities).  Some sixth formers choose to do STEP just for fun!

Parents & Teachers of students with Autism – This is a short leaflet explaining how autism affects a childs learning in Mathematics.

What about Apps?

If you are more Pentium than Pen and paper, then these Apps may be for you.  Both apps help children develop mathematical skills through playful interaction and not just repetitive number work.  Covers Common Core (USA) & the New National Curriculum (UK).  The Matific Series – ages 3 – 11 (iPad needed) ; SlateMath – ages 3 to 7 (iPad needed)

App from Edexcel for GCSE & A level papers – free to download

Need more help?

If you find that you need more help, you should start by getting in touch with your child’s teacher or you can send me a message via this blog (or tweet me @vahorai).

I wish this guy was my teacher!

I didn’t think I’d write another post ever as I had decided last month to stick to using my blog to share teaching resources.  But, here I am as I couldn’t resist after watching Walter Lewin (a Physics lecturer at MIT) in action!  Watch the following clip before you read any further and you’ll know what I mean…

Know what I mean?

So, to answer a question I was asked in an interview for the post of head of maths a few years ago and one that I attempted to blog about (not very well mind you) I wish I had seen and heard Walter Lewin.  My response to the question “which is better, a teacher that gets results or a teacher that is inspiring?” would have been a breeze.  Oh, hindsight what a terror you are.

The reason for this blog is not to re-visit and reignite the old post but to get you to see and hear a wonderful and truly inspiring teacher and what some of you may wish to aspire to.

In an interview with Walter Lewin, he goes on to explain what makes an inspirational teacher and his philosophy on teaching Physics to undergraduates.

I’ve scribbled a few of his thoughts from that interview here:

“…your class has to see, smell and feel in their hands that you love your subject…”
“…the teacher has to carry that enthusiasm over to the students….”
“…there has to be humour…”
“…teachers have to try to make difficult concepts simple…”
“…for me teaching is a performance…”
“…plan your lessons…”

“…now go back to your lesson plan and plan some more!”

I studied for a Masters in Mathematical Physics and if this guy was my teacher, boy I’d be teaching Physics and not Maths.  Hang on, Isn’t there a shortage of Physics teachers?

GCSE Results Analysis I

looking at dataHOW were yours?  I have been thinking about how to look at my GCSE and A level data over the last couple of days and how to make sense of it all.  My instinct was to dive in and calculate the A* – C pass rate.  Done!  Now what?  bearing in mind I’m a bit of a novice in data analysis.  Knowing the A* – C pass rate was not enough, I needed to look at the data in more detail.  But where do we start? Or shall I do nothing and hold out for the RAISEonline report to come through and worry about things then?  As I am curious (and you are too no doubt otherwise you would not be reading this) I decided that just relying on the A* – C pass rate would make me as bad as the perpetrators of league tables and so I got onto Excel and started drawing up tables to make all sorts of comparisons

Warning! Do not try to do it all at once by yourself!

Warning! this is a time-consuming process, but worth the effort to get a better picture of your department.

The next step was to carry out Class by Class comparisons – I repeated the process above for individual teachers and sets.  Nothing taxing, just repetitive and pivot tables would probably be a better way of doing but I don’t know how.  If you want to know how watch this video.  This made interesting reading and the thing I needed to remind myself was this is not an exercise in looking for faults or pinning the blaming on anyone, but to find what the departments overall strengths are and what areas need improving and armed with this figure out a way in which to fix the areas that need improving.  What interests me about class by class comparisons are things like: variation in teaching, assessment and especially formative assessment including marking of students work, setting of homework and so on.  If there are inconsistencies within my department I would like to make that a focus this coming year.

Time for reflection – It is advisable to stop staring at the data for a day or two and reflect on what you have gathered so far.  I then compared the Higher paper versus the Foundation paper (refer to Table 3 below).  Would this reveal anything?  I was hoping that I had a whole bunch of students sitting on D grades which would make me question whether I should have entered them for the higher papers in order to help them secure that magical C grade (terrible I know).  But as you can see below, we only entered 34 students for the foundation papers and only 3 students managed to achieve a C or D grade.  This was a relief.  It confirms that we were correctly assessing our students and entering them for the papers at the level that was right for them.

Evaluation: Previous years Mathematics results at my school are: 2014: 72%; 2013: 73% my first set of results as HOD and the highest ever for our school (NB: the summer 2013 cohort sat multiple entries); 2012: 62%; 2011: 59%. There were more students at grade U this year, which I have yet to look into.

Next Steps: I have yet to look at what proportion of students met their end of KS4 targets (especially CATs predictions which have been shown to have 0.84 correlation) as well as our .  The other things I need to look at are:

  • Actual versus Predicted- this will be based on the mocks we did in March 2014 (a pivot table is recommended for this)
  • Look for outliers (e.g. predicted an E but got a B) and reasons for this
  • The strengths of the department and that of individual teachers
  • Areas for improvement including the C/D borderline intervention
  • compare KS2 entry levels with final grade at GCSE and see if all students that achieved a level 4 (at KS2) gained a C or above (again, a pivot table can do this for you in no time)
  • anything else you can think of.

Use this service to get the most out of where your students went wrong.

Wow, sounds like a lot of work for one person.  Correct.  But fear not, ResultsPlus is at hand and this is what I should have mentioned at the start(most exam boards have a similar service, see below).  ResultsPlus is a free service that provides detailed analysis of exam performance. It can help you identify topics and skills where students could benefit from further learning. It also helps in Identifying topics, skills and types of question where students may need to develop their learning further.  You can also see actual scores for each exam question for a student, class or group and understand how your students’ performance compares with national averages.  Take a look at this snapshot document which highlights the entire cohorts 10 best and worst questions as well as the 10 skills my department needs to focus on improving this year.

Conclusion:  Am I happy with these results? Yes.  I realize that the 5 A* – C is not a pure reflection of teaching quality as there are numerous factors at play outside our control that could result in a school or department not performing as well as it could have, namely: not being fully staffed, long term sickness, budgetary constraints for essential resources, lack of CPD, unqualified staff…the list goes on.  I haven’t taken free school meals (FSM) into consideration as I don’t think there is sufficient data to suggest that it is a reliable indicator of students performance in exams.  If you or your department did not perform as well as you wished, you may be able to find reasons for this by analyzing your data and hopefully you’ll be able to draw up an action plan for the coming year.  Good luck for 2015.

Further Reading and Information:

Venn will we use this Miss?

venn diagram

A simple Venn Diagram

On your marks and get ‘Set’

Now that Sets and Venn Diagrams are back on the syllabus at KS4, how do we go about teaching it?

The new specification topics (for first teaching from September 2015) regarding Venn diagrams are: P6: enumerate sets and combinations of sets systematically, using tables, grids, Venn diagrams and tree diagrams
P9: calculate and interpret conditional probabilities through representation using expected frequencies with two-way tables, tree diagrams and Venn diagrams.

So, what will the actual GCSE questions look like? Here are questions from both the higher and foundation papers (NB: this is a draft document from Edexcel/Pearson). Refer to Q19 from Paper 3 (foundation tier) and Q11 from Paper 2 (Higher tier).  As you can see, neither questions are too taxing for students (nor teachers!).  Students are however required to understand how to interpret set notation (i.e. A U etc.)

Going back to Early Years: From an early stage in our childhood, we are taught to sort things, from cutlery to socks and pants in drawers.  In primary school we are asked to sort pictures of animals and 2D shapes into Carroll Diagrams as shown in diagram 2 below.  For younger audiences (KS1 or 2), you may wish to introduce the topic by watching this 2 minute video from the BBC learning zone with two friendly penguins – I will get my KS3 students to watch this.

carroll diagram

Diagram 2: sorting shapes into a Carroll Diagram

carroll diagram numbers

Diagram 3: Write a number less than 100 into each space in this Carroll Diagram

Moving on into upper primary, Diagrams 3 shows an example of what pupils should know and be able to do at Level 4, namely, use the given Carroll diagram to write a number less than 100 in each space.

Teachers can then extend this using some probing Questions at Level 4: Give me an example of a Venn diagram that can be used to sort the numbers 1–50.  Which criteria have you used and why?  What strategies do you use to check your Carroll diagram is complete? How is a Venn diagram different from a Carroll diagram? You can of course make up your own questions and add extra dimensions to the Carroll Diagram above by adding an extra row or column. Is there a better way of organizing or sorting numbers?

Fast forward to high school…and for GCSE style questions on Venn Diagrams, take a look at Q22 – 25.  These have been taken from GCSE Statistics past papers and so teachers wishing to look for more examples could start by looking there.

Hold on, rewind a little. I’m a newbie at this and would like someone to explain things a bit more clearly.  If that is you (like me) then click here for the ideal place to start on Sets and Venn diagrams. CIMT guide you effortlessly through the whole thing and this will probably be my preferred route until I’m confident that I understand things a bit better.  After an introductory lesson or two, you can get students to work through the following interactive worksheets written by (again) CIMT: Sets & Venn Diagrams followed by Set Notation. Both sheets provide detailed class notes and immediate feedback for individuals and could also be completed for homework.

Other useful resources to use in lessons:

  • For group work with KS3, 4 or 5 here’s a Venn Diagram matching activity from the FMSP.  You may wish to do it yourself before presenting it to the class.  And here’s the solution.
  • If you are a PowerPoint type of person, here’s one (by Christine Crisp) that you can adapt, which was originally written for S1 at A-level but is equally suitable for KS4.
  • As always, one of the best places to look to stretch your students is on the NRICH site and they have 8 activities and problems for KS1, 2 & 3.
  • If you are a YouTube fan, ukmathsteacher explains venn diagrams and set notation quite clearly in this video (there are thousands of other videos but I think he is clear in his explanation)
  • A poster on Sets – a clearly laid out diagram showing 16 different things you can say about A and B – alternatively you could ask groups to design a poster themselves
  • There’s no free lunch and so if you don’t mind ignoring the ads, here’s a Free IGCSE textbook. Venn Diagrams have been on the IGCSE syllabus for a long time and all IGCSE textbooks will have oodles of examples and practice questions (see pages 380 – 396) so no need to go out and buy new books!

and finally, here’s a problem for you to share with your students:

“Who shaves the barber?”

In a small village all of the men are clean shaven. There is one village barber, and he shaves all the men (but only those men) who do not shave themselves.
So – who shaves the barber?
It would seem logical to suppose that the men in the village comprise two sets: set A comprises the men who shave themselves, while set B consists of the men who are shaved by the barber. Try drawing a Venn diagram to show these two sets. Should they overlap, or not?
You should find that it is not possible to answer the question of who shaves the barber, because the way in which the problem is stated contains an in-built contradiction. This is Russell’s paradox, and serves to warn mathematicians that great care is needed when defining sets.
Oh, and just one more.  Here’s the mother of all Set questions from Bertrand Russell

“Is the set of all sets that are not members of themselves a member of itself?”

That’s sure to make your head hurt.  Now you’re all ‘Set’ to go!

Learning vs Performance

Question: Do you know the difference between ‘learning’ and ‘performance’?  Go on, take a minute to think about each word.

expectant mindset image

This post sprung to mind when I was asked the following question at an interview for the post of head of department…”which is better, a teacher that gets results or a teacher that is inspiring?

I went for the latter which resulted in the interviewing deputy headteacher (and the rest of the panel) jumping down my throat.  This reaction made me think about the difference between learning and performance and whether schools led by league tables and early entry prefer to focus on getting the grades at the expense of deeper learning.  My argument against teachers solely focussing on results (and I tried not to let it become an argument) was that students taught to tests generally aim for and settle for that so-called magical C-grade instead of stretching themselves and aiming that little bit higher.  Able students entered early for exams at the end of Year 10 may become lazy and not try as hard as they should.  The other reason and what I consider to be a damaging consequence of focussing on short-term performance is that teachers may not stretch students as much as they could by providing a diet of comfort work that prepares students just for the tests.  Teaching to tests and a focus on performance prevents teachers from inspiring their students and instilling a love for their subject and thereby continuing it onto A-level and further.

Students taught to tests tend not to opt for those subjects at A-level and if they do, they don’t perform as well because they have not been exposed to teaching that allows them to take ownership of their learning and thus become independent learners.  In short, they have become conditioned to having their hand-held into jumping through hoops and rote learning.

In this short video interview, Robert Bjork explains how to disassociate learning from performance – watch it and then come back to your original answer to the question posed at the beginning of this post.

One of the benefits of reflecting on the distinction between learning and performance (especially short-term performance) has led me to think about my lesson planning and to help me do this, I look at the image at the top of this post each time I plan to help me stretch students I teach by not making things too easy for them.

one way to improve your teaching

a frog placed in hot water will jump out and save itself from imminent death but a frog placed in cold water which is heated slowly will not be so lucky!

a frog placed in hot water will jump out and save itself from imminent death but a frog placed in cold water which is heated slowly will not be so lucky!

Question: Are you comfortable in your current job? Have you been in your current post for more than 5 years? Would you like to change jobs or are you happy where you are? Over the last 12 years I have worked in many schools around the country. These have included: secondary schools, single-sex, independents, catholic convents and of course academies.  I have found that one of the most brutal ways of finding out how good your teaching is and more importantly to help you improve your teaching is to simply ‘go for interviews’.

Of course, a rejection does not necessarily mean that you are no good and cannot teach.  There are a multitude of reasons for you not getting it from your face not fitting the profile or they already had someone lined up internally.  However, one thing for certain is that going for interviews will inevitably make you reflect deeply about your current practice. You will have to face some uncomfortable truths and may even realize that you could do better.
This is all good. I am not encouraging you to leave your current workplace and you may  be comfortable and happy where you are. But in order to improve your teaching, you have to challenge yourself.  Merely watching brilliant teachers in action or being observed yourself will not provide teachers the umph they need.  Furthermore, I have been part of a few coaching programmes that merely turn into mentoring after a couple of sessions and they don’t really work as a teachers workload does not provide them with the time for these programmes to work effectively.  In short, the change to be a better teacher has to come from within.   In short, one way to improve your teaching is not to allow yourself to become the frog placed in cold water, better be the ‘frog in hot water’!