How to teach a class of 4,500 students

3rd December 2010 at 00:00
Video-conferencing allowed times-table guru Tom Renwick to reach thousands of pupils at once

Tom Renwick has worked with a lot of pupils. In a decade of zigzagging across Scotland, the maths trainer believed he had inched beyond the 100,000 mark.

Then in a 40-minute session last month, he imparted his expertise to more than 4,500 pupils in a single stroke - a figure that would have taken him six months to amass by trekking from school to school.

The session, held at Lauder Primary in the Borders, was made possible using Glow, the Scottish schools' intranet. It allowed him to master the eight-times table with pupils in 170 schools from as far away as Shetland.

The video-conferencing tool Glow Meet is ideal for events such as the well-publicised Doctor Who spectacular earlier this year, when 7,000 pupils witnessed the invasion of West Dunbartonshire's Gavinburn Primary by Cybermen, but could a trudge through the times table really compare?

Apparently so. It turned out to be one of the largest events - second only to the Doctor.

Using little more than flashcards, Mr Renwick cranked up the excitement. Classes were challenged to rattle through a random selection of times- table teasers as quickly as possible. They broke momentarily to go over techniques with teachers, before returning determined to beat personal bests.

"The excitement and the enjoyment of pupils in the virtual audience was just tremendous," says Zena Richardson, a seconded teacher and Curriculum for Excellence development officer at Scottish Borders Council.

She watched the increasingly absorbed P5s at Lauder Primary in a room with Mr Renwick, but then discovered that a class watching on a screen elsewhere in the school was equally engrossed.

There was a "really competitive" atmosphere, as answers from around the country kept popping on screen; everyone seemed to do better the second time round.

Things did not go as smoothly at Papdale Primary in Kirkwall, Orkney, where technical difficulties meant teachers were forced to squeeze 60 pupils into one room.

Even so, the excitement of knowing so many other children were completing the same challenges, combined with the pressure of performing against the clock, made students forget the inconvenience, says P5 teacher Lee Stockan.

She saw enough to convince her that Glow Meet would be ideal for a future project on Scottish geography and history.

"The Borders mean little to children who may not have travelled far," she explains, `but speaking live to a similarly aged girl or boy from the area would immediately bring part of Scotland to vivid, memorable life."

Back in the Borders, Mrs Richardson believes Glow Meet will be ideal for overcoming an upcoming predicament for her.

She will be returning to the classroom in January, as principal teacher of three small primaries: Kirkhope (45 pupils), Yarrow (12) and Ettrick (5). The last has a P2 boy, but every other pupil is P5 or older. While it won't be practical to travel with the P2 boy between "neighbouring" schools divided by bumpy roads and journeys of nearly half-an-hour, the excitement generated by Glow Meet for something as routine as times tables has persuaded her that, through its regular use, he need not be isolated from pupils his own age.

Mr Renwick, a former maths principal teacher who visits schools through his Maths on Track company, says he found the Glow Meet little different from the hundreds of other sessions he has taken. He simply had to speak a little slower and ensure the camera could see what he was doing.

During the session, questions were hurled thick and fast at him, from within the classroom and beyond the screen: "How can you learn the 12- times table?", "How do you get a job teaching times tables?", "How did you learn your times tables?"

The last one is easy: he practised and practised and practised - because he was made to at school in the fifties - until they became second nature to him.

Glow Meet does not mark the death knell for traditional techniques, Mr Renwick says. It might just be the catalyst for its revival.

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