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Complexity matters: the importance of collaboration

Serious number wizards, those for whom advanced calculations are their sole focus, have a fascinating system in which a mathematician can earn the kudos of an ‘Erdős number’. Although it is common to think of academics and researchers as isolated individuals who think, research and write alone, the truth is more complex…

Paul Erdős (pronounced Erdosh) was a prolific and inspirational Jewish-Hungarian maths genius who wandered the globe throughouerdost his academic life searching for mathematical challenges and, according to one commentator, ‘managed to think about more problems than any other mathematician in history’. By the time he died aged eighty-three, Erdős had written nearly 1,500 mathematical academic papers, many of which were co-authored with 511 other mathematicians he directly collaborated with over four continents. This is where Erdős numbers come into play. An Erdős number denotes a link across time and around the world, through academic partnership, back to Paul Erdős*.

The Erdős number system is an acknowledgement of the power of collaboration, and not just to maths-magicians: Erdős numbers are interdisciplinary. Physicists and economists also have Erdos numbers, along with those who study biology, chemistry and medicine. They are a testament to the importance mathematicians and others place on thinking and learning with each other, as opposed to writing and working alone.

a sunday on la grande jatteThis Wednesday at Alma Primary we held a Culture and Creativity Day. Children across the school learnt about the picture ‘A Sunday on La Grande Jatte’, by Georges Seurat. As well as creating their own individual paintings, using a pointillism technique, children in Years 1 and 2 worked together to create dramatic recreations of the image, while children in Year 3 worked with artist Miki Shaw to create a collaborative modern interpretation Seurat’s work. The children told us they found it ‘difficult’ because not everyone agreed, but that they enjoyed sharing ideas, helping each other, collaborating and creating something together.

Our children are growing up in complex societies and communities, but there is a worrying tendency to reduce complex, multi-dimensional issues to simplistic, mono-dimensional questions and binary solutions, which don’t help us, our children or the communities we are part of. Good teachers know that asking simplistic, binary questions produce simplistic and binary answers, which don’t enable children to develop deeper understanding. To develop children’s thinking we need to expose them to complexity and allow them to struggle with problems and difficulties.

Teaching children to appreciate complexity and to collaborate, to seek consensus when part of a group, to find ways to get along with those around them is one of the ways we can support children to thrive in the future. This will enable them to build a better world, a world of consensus rather than conflict and isolation.

It is because collaboration is so important that teachers at Alma Primary seek ways to enable children to work together, to learn from each other and to solve problems in teams or groups. As Erdős numbers highlight, we often achieve our best by working together, rather than through division and isolation.

*To ‘earn’ an Erdős number, someone must co-author a research paper with another person who already has an Erdős number. Paul Erdős himself has an Erdős number of 0 and during his lifetime he directly collaborated with 511 other mathematicians, each of whom have an Erdős number of 1. Those who collaborated with those collaborators have a 2, while those who collaborated with the people who collaborated with Erdos's collaborators have a 3. Anybody else's Erdős number is x + 1 where x is the lowest Erdős number of any co-author. So if Jane collaborated with Freddy who has an Erdős number of 5, then Jane has an Erdős number of 6; if Tony collaborates with Jane (but no-one who has a lower Erdős number) then Tony gets an Erdős number of 7; and if Sammy then co-authors a paper with Tony (but not with Jane or anyone with a lower Erdős number) then she gets an Erdős number of 8.

Thanks to Micha Ben-Gad for introducing and explaining Erdos numbers to me!

This is the first in a series of blogs about 21st century learning curriculum, an approach used at Alma which seeks to provide children with skills and dispositions that go beyond the core curriculum in order to help them make the most of opportunities both in and out of school.

Post-truth, post-truth, pants on fire

As a child I loved the idea of x-ray vision and imagined being able to see into cupboards and cases. There is something beautiful and intriguing about the ability to think of things that have never been and, in some cases, never could be, to enter imagined worlds of the past and the possible. Painting and dancing, writing and acting, speaking and singing all have the potential to uplift us, to encourage the best in us and to make us think, but there is a world of difference that separates using creativity to inspire, solve problems, or highlight beauty in the world, from the shallow, sad deceptions used to trick and mislead others, that have recently affected so many societies and cultures. 

While we have been working to build a positive future for children at Alma in our new site, there are times when I have been angry, frustrated and occasionally scared by the cynical manipulation of emotions and feeling that have played out in a variety of situations around the world. This has been an aspect of discourse not just in the UK and America, but in the Middle East, Asia and beyond, and one of thing I’ve come to loath in these situations is the term ‘post-truth’. This phrase, which has been increasingly used, seems to give a positive spin to deception; in essence it offers a post-modern ‘nod-and-a-wink’ to something that most people agree is damaging and that concerns me as an educator.

Children are good at understanding the difference between truth and lies. In fact large elements of traditional socialisation help children to understand that people can dissemble and deceive. Many children in England learn the adage ‘liar, liar, pants on fire’ as a mechanism to identify lying and publically acknowledge that this is wrong, whilst various traditional stories play through the ways in which humans can lie to each other, as well as exploring the consequences of lies.

Young people are growing up in environments in which the truth is often blurred and as society evolves education needs to adapt to the new realities created by changes in culture and technology that affect us all. The use of packaging to bamboozle us into thinking that products are more valuable or elusive than they actually are is something schools have become increasingly overt in teaching children to recognise and understand, but post truth deceptions are buried under layers of subterfuge and not all lies are obvious. Ian Gilbert, author of ‘Why Do I Need a Teacher When I’ve got Google’, describes the challenge in terms of knowledge.  The role of the 21st century teacher, Gilbert argues, is to help young people find knowledge and ‘to know what to do with it when they get it, to know 'good' knowledge from 'bad' knowledge… to be creative with it… to know which bits to use and when and how to use them’.

Our children need opportunities to grapple with truth and lies, to see the difference between exaggeration and deception, as well as to understand how to respond to lies when they come across them. In a world where social media myths are all too quickly created, where online providers are often more interested in click rates than confirmation, where power can be gained through deception, then, as educators and as parents, we have a duty to help children develop well-calibrated internal lie detectors, as well as strong moral compasses. To grow up securely in a post-truth world, children need the intellectual x-ray vision to see that post-truths are just well-dressed lies. As educators and parents, helping them to grapple with this is part of our challenge and one we should take seriously.

Lessons in scamming

Yesterday was World book Day, when children at Alma, in common with many in other primary schools, dressed up as their favourite characters or books. Less common perhaps was the discussion we had with children in Years 1 and 2 about book scams. World Book Day at Alma

A couple of months ago children received an invitation to take part in a poetry competition, which turned out to be more a marketing ploy than genuine activity. The idea behind these schemes is that children are invited to submit an entry: a short story, poem or even an illustration, for something that is referred to as ‘a competition’ and usually run by an organisation with a misleading title, such as the ‘National Literacy Endowment’ or ‘Young Writers’. We, along with all schools in the country, get sent these kind of invitations on a regular basis and we are generally savvier at avoiding them. In the small print for these schemes there are frequently details explaining the company or organisation pick the ‘winners’, (which are normally about 80% of the entries), and these ‘lucky entries’ will be published in a book which parents can buy, for anything from £12 to £20.

Whilst there is technically nothing illegal with this kind of thing, there are many reasons why these so-called competitions are wrong: when adults choose to self-publish poetry, memoires or even fan-fiction, they do so knowing that they have not been selected by an editor or publisher, so that in the event the book only sells to family and friends, they would have limited expectations of national recognition or prize winning acclaim! However, when children are convinced to submit something under false pretences, parents then feel guilt-driven into spending a reasonable amount of money on the books. It may well be a cynical marketing opportunity but it is also, to my mind, absolutely wrong.

Since on this occasion we had inadvertently sent this out, as educators we realised we faced a choice. We could shrug our shoulders and apologise for our administrative error, or we could use the learning opportunity that this presented. Since we believe that children can ultimately become more resilient if we are honest with them, even when that honesty may be painful, we choose the latter. We spoke to the children about how these people had tried to trick them and their parents. Then we asked the children what we should do.

Our children are growing up in a world where increasingly there are organisations or individuals who are trying to convince us to give them money for products or services. As recent advertising campaigns have highlighted, fraudsters and scammers are actively exploiting our vulnerabilities, particularly in the digital realm. One of the important aspects of our educational approach is teaching children to challenge and question the validity of the things the encounter in the world. So whilst this was sent to us as a cynical scam, it gave our children a very real world opportunity to see how convincing such fraudsters can be.

In our discussion the children suggested that it was unfair of their parents to pay money for these books (something we agreed with) and that we should, instead, create our own book of our children’s best writing – something we will look to do in the summer term. We will also get a copy of the ‘competition’ book for our school library: as well as a collection of poems by children at Alma and other schools, it will also serve as a reminder for us all to have a little healthy cynicism in a world where there are all too often tricksters looking to exploit our good will. 

Sorry isn't the hardest word

We often thing that the hard part of reconciliation is saying sorry, but in my experience with both children and adults the really difficulty is in forgiving, in letting go of the real and perceived harms done to us. That’s the reason that yesterday we spent the morning with our Year 1 and 2 children (our new Reception children are still settling in) engaged in activities to do with World Peace Day.

World Peace Day started as an initiative of the United Nations and has been taken up by communities and schools around the world as a way of building towards a more peaceful world. At the initiative of the Peace One Day movement, the date of World Peace day has become September 21st and we used the opportunity yesterday to think about peace and, in the words of Torah, to pursue peace.

We started the day by talking abut the ways in which we create peace and the importance of being able to forgive those who have done wrong in order to create peace. Our children have created a wonderful poster for peace using the words for peace from different languages and read poems about peace as well as writing their own. In addition to developing their own understanding, we wanted the children to do something practical to encourage peace in the world. It may sound daunting for 5, 6 and 7 year olds to help make peace but in our discussion with them, our children were clear that they could play a part to help make the work more peaceful. To do so they illustrated stories of peace, including the middle-Eastern tale of the two brothers, so send as gifts to refugee children who are coming to the UK to escape war and persecution.

During our World Peace Day discussions, one of the ideas we shared with the children was from the violinist and conductor Yehudi Menuhin, who said that ‘peace may sound simple, one beautiful word, but it requires everything we have, every quality, every strength, every dream, every high ideal.’ It is a humbling notion that to achieve even simple things requires great effort, but one that is also uplifting idea which can give us strength to make a difference through the things we do.

Tonight Jews all over the world begin Yom Kippur, the culmination of a period of 10 days of reflecting and sifting through the past year, in which we are able to stand with our communities, our families and our friends and to ask forgiveness not just for the mistakes we have made in our interactions with others, but to also seek forgiveness for our failures to live up to the ideals we espouse, to do the right think, to be the best we can be. It is often easier to say sorry to others than to offer forgiveness, but forgiving is an essential part of Yom Kippur and a central part of the peace process.

Gmar Hatima Tova

Marc Shoffren

Global Alma

How do we help children to grasp big terms like globalisation? How do we enable them to understand and internalise key values, rather than knowing but not caring? The answer, for me, to both questions is through the concept of ‘na’ase v’nishma’, doing and understanding.

The Hebrew word we use for giving to those in needs is tzedakah. The word comes from the word tzedek, or ‘justice’ and the association we aim to build with children is not that we pity others or have mercy on those less fortunate than ourselves, but rather that we have a responsibility to make the world a better and a fairer place through our actions. We have to seek opportunities to do justice. 

In May, we held our own values election, on the same day that the UK was thinking about some big issues as well. The children of Alma Primary elected the Tzedakh Party and since then we have been working hard to enact their ‘manifesto’. We have been asking families to send each child into school with a coin on Fridays so that we can collect money and now we have send off all the money we have collected during the year.

So far this year, as a resIndia tree Certificateult of your support, we have made a donation of £150 to the Asylum Seekers centre, which is based at New North London Synagogue, a cause that parents had voted for last year and which we have now been able to support. Following an assembly in the spring term we have been able to give money to Red Nose Day which has gone to support children’s learning in Africa and the UK. From money collected at Tu Bishvat (New Year for trees) we have planted a grove of trees in Israel and 60 trees in India, one for each child at Alma. Finally, we are donating money to support victims of the earthquake in Nepal. It is impressive that from a small school in Finchley we have been able to touch the lives of people in four other countries.

Last week, in our Tuesday assembly, we shared with the children the results and the global reach of their efforts. We then asked them what they wanted to do next. They came up with a range of things we need to do in order help make the world a kinder place, from smiling and helping children in our school, to supporting those who can’t afford food or medicine: a great agenda for Alma to work on in the coming academic year!

Live Aid in 1985 was a significant moment when many in my generation realised that we could do something to improve the lives of others, even if they are far away. The effect of globalisation has made this far more common, but one of our challenges is to make that meaningful for children, so that they see the effects of their actions and learn, over time, that we help others not out of pity but because we know it is the right thing to do.

In Alma, when we sing the prayer for peace, ‘oseh shalom’, we add the words ‘al kol yoshvei tevel’, a modern addition to the prayer which is not used in all communities. The phrase comes from the Talmud and refers to ‘all those who dwell on earth’. It is, to my mind, a beautiful term and a worthy addition to the Oseh Shalom prayer as it helps us to consider our global responsibilities along with our local and day-to-day concerns. Our focus as a school is often to embody the words of anthropologist Margaret Mead, who wrote 'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.’

As we end our academic year, I wish you a wonderful summer break and hope you enjoy spending time with you children, looking for ways to 'na'ase vnishma', to do and to learn so that you and your children can continue to create positive change in the world. 

Serious Human Becomings

We've all heard the stories: parents who have stopped their children from taking part in 'rough play', schools who have banned children from playing conkers or running in the playground, parks which have banned games, all in the name of reasonable precaution, but I often worry that the boundary between reasonable precaution and over protection is very thin.

Janusz Korczak, the inspirational Polish paediatrician, author and educator, wrote that 'Children are not the people of tomorrow, but are people of today. They have a right to be taken seriously.' Korczak's aim, as revolutionary now as it was in the 1920s when he wrote these words, was to challenge the view commonly held, that children are some sort of mini adults. Instead, Korczak argues, we should see children as a fully formed individuals with needs, wants, rights and responsibilities.

At Alma we take children seriously. We believe that their needs are important. We believe they have opinions that, while not always tested by experience, deserve the opportunity to be considered, questioned and honestly challenged. Most importantly we believe in the importance of treating children with respect. We don't think that they will be knocked down by every gust of wind that blows. Children's self-esteem is vital but our experience as educators is that children are resilient and they aren't damaged by every knock that life has to offer. We believe that they can cope with some disappointment. Experiencing disappointment, frustration and difficulty is an essential element to learning to cope with the difficult business of being a human.

This is an attitude that Dr Carol Dweck refers to as a 'growth mind set'. Coming across problems can be frustrating, but that doesn't equate with failure. Rather, facing problems of all kinds is a way to grow and develop. Dealing with challenges offers us opportunities to improve and to be best placed to respond to challenges in the future. Often in life, things don't go the way we would like. Our children don't always get what they want, or even what we want them to get. When small disappointments happen, it isn't always helpful to fight in order to protect our children. Instead we can see disappointments as opportunities for them to learn how to overcome setbacks and to develop the capacity to see the bigger picture. By approaching problems in this way, we are giving our children the best chance to succeed in life by helping them to develop resilience.

Taking children seriously means that we will allow them to struggle and fail and then encourage them to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and learn from the experience. Maybe they will need to try harder, to try differently or simply to try again. As parents, we want to protect our children from the serious dangers of the world. This is an instinct we have developed over thousands, if not millions of years, but was adapted to a world where we simply knew less. The constant stream of information about the dangers of the world that we are now exposed to means this instict is being constantly triggered. Many parents now find themselves in a position where rather than protecting their children from serious danger, they focus on every conceivable issue in a desire to sheild their children from pain. As parents, we need to learn to self-moderate those instincts, to allow our children to take risks and to expose them to difficulties and disappointments. By doing so we won't make their lives worse - rather we will help them to develop strategies to overcome difficulties, to face disappointments and to deal with the world head on. We learn from our experiences. Preventing our children from experiencing difficulties means we also prevent them from learning. As Dweck puts it, our achievements aren't measured by how easily things come to us, but by how we deal with the things which don't come easily.

Writing about children being treated with respect, Korczak continued "They should be allowed to grow into whoever they were meant to be. The 'unknown person' inside of them is our hope for the future." This weekend is the festival of Shavuot, the time in Judaism in which we celebrate receiving the Torah. In one of my favourite Shavuot midrashim (rabbinical stories) the Israelites are asked to offer God a guarantee before they are allowed to have the Torah. In the story, God rejects the Israelite's righteousness and also rejects their ancestors, but agrees to give them the Torah when they offer their children as a guarantee. The midrash reminds us that our children hold the potential to improve our world, but they can only achieve that potential if we take them seriously, allow them to make mistakes and give them opportunities to learn from those mistakes.

Good Choices

The correct words to use? The right time to act? What to send? Who to talk to, vote for, or make arrangements with? Whether we are thinking about our own actions, the activities we choose for our children, or the collective acts we take part in, we are regularly called on to make individual and group decisions that affect us, those around us and our planet. We make complex decisions every day, but in a dynamic world, with information streamed from multiple sources, many of which are designed to influence our choices, making the right decision can often be a challenge.brain feelings

During this week, in our Reception class, we have been talking about the brakhah (blessing) '...ha'mechin mitz'adei gaver' we recite in the morning. The blessing loosely translates as 'thank you for guiding us to make choices', and our discussions have been about how we make good decisions. The children shared some of the decisions they are thinking about, from their playtime friendship choices to family matters, and we discussed strategies they could use to help them. One of the aims in our School Development Plan, the strategic document we write each year to guide our work at Alma, is to help children 'develop good decision-making'. It is a great aim, and something I think is essential for children's development, but it is not something that is simple to achieve. Decision making, in primary school talk, is a tricky business.

We often think as adults that we are rational and logical thinkers, however as Professor Daniel Kahneman shows, our belief that we are making carefully considered decisions, is often profoundly mistaken. In his fascinating book, 'Thinking Fast and Slow' Kahneman demonstrates that our minds are strongly influenced by irrelevant things on quite a regular basis. He describes an experiment where students watched a wheel of fortune spin. The students had to note down then number selected and were then asked to guess what percentage of African nations there are in the United Nations. The wheel was fixed to either stop at 10 or 65 and the students, who should have ignored the irrelevant number spun on the wheel, were instead deeply affected by the number they saw and regularly made guesses akin to the number they had spun. By relating the results of a wide variety of psychological tests like this, Kahneman establishes that our thinking is a great deal more complicated than we think it is. When we stay inside our heads our minds are limited by a whole range of factors we don't really take account of. Most of us are far more influenced by irrelevant information or by the sounds, sights and smells around us than we would like to admit.

So does this mean that teaching children to make good decisions is inevitably flawed? I don't think so: Gandhi taught that 'You have to do the right thing ... You may never know what results come from your action, but if you do nothing, there will be no result.' Ignoring the problem doesn't help and whilst we may not be sure of always doing the right thing, we can overcome some of our limitations simply by challenging our own thinking, either through internal or external dialogue. By discussing our problems with others, evaluating our options, listing the pros and cons, working out the consequences of actions, or, for some, talking to God, we are able to rise above our tendency to make snap judgements.

We are all guilty of assuming that children will absorb our positive behaviours simply by being around us, but this is rarely true. If we want children to develop the ability to make considered choices and decisions then we need to model this behaviour for them. We need to talk to them about difficult choices we are faced with (assuming they are appropriate for young, growing minds) and we need to clearly explain what we are doing to make our decisions. That way we can help them to develop their own ways of making decisions which overcome our natural limitations and help our children to make the best of their opportunities.

We Need to Talk

It is common for many teachers and parents, when faced with quarrelling children, to tell them that if they can't get along then they should just avoid each other. This frequently used approach to dealing with problems through separation and avoidance is commonplace, but in my eyes totally wrong. The events of recent years, epitomised by the tragic events in France, have emphasised the importance of teaching children tolerance and respect, but above all have underlined the imperative to give them the ability and motivation to engage in difficult discussions, particularly with those who we find it most challenging to talk to. Jewish tradition teaches us the importance of 'makhlochet' or 'respectful disagreement': we cannot all agree on everything and we don't need to live in a fantasy of superficial harmony. I firmly believe that we need to do, and teach our children to do, is have honest and deep discussions with those who differ from us, in which we try our best to understand their perspectives and are prepared to respectfully disagree about things we can't see eye to eye about.

This notion of deep discussion was a feature of the work of governors this week, who spent an evening exploring British Values and SMSC (Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Education) at Alma. British Values have been at the forefront of the educational discussion for the past couple of years. They were initially identified as important in the Government's Prevent strategy, which was launched by the UK Government in 2011 to prevent the promotion of terrorism and radicalisation. The writers of the strategy identified some of the core British values they saw as the responsibility of schools and other organisation to promote. These include (amongst other things) respect for democracy, freedom of speech, respect for individual liberty and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. The principles of these values have since been incorporated into Department for Education advice and Ofsted guidance for schools. The guidance we explored underlies the importance of many of the values and practices which are part of our approach at Alma, such as teaching children to be reflective about their own beliefs, developing thir imagination, learning to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions, engaging with democracy and the parliamentary system and, in the words of Ofsted, developing an 'interest in exploring, improving understanding of and showing respect for different faiths and cultural diversity'.

TheStoryOfTheElephantIt is against the background of these principles, and of  helping our children to grow up with tolerance amidst fear and disharmony, that we were glad to welcome three guests to school over the past week: last Friday Muslim author Hajera Memon visited us, to share her beautiful children's book, 'The Story of the Elephant' with us, something we will be using as part of our Year 1 curriculum later this year. Hajera came to join our Friday morning singing (which she loved) and is part of a growing group of individuals from different faith groups, who are helping our children to learn about the beliefs of others.

Our other guests were two of our local MPs, who welcomed to school this Friday: Mike Freer, the MP for the Finchley and Golders Green constituency we are currently in and Theresa Villiers, MP for the Totteridge and Whetstone constituency, where we will be in the future. They had an opportunity to talk to the children and to hear about the things they are learning at the moment. They were both imprssed with the children's knowledge and Mike was especially pleased to be compared to Nelson Mandela, one of the heroes Year 1 are currently learning about!

The discussion in the press regarding British Values has not always been positive, but at the heart of the matter is the notion of creating a better society and a better world, something that guides the work we do here. Using discussion and dialogue to solve problems, find creative solutions and work in cooperation is not just important, it is essential to creating a world built on kindness and is at the heart of Alma, whatever we are learning. We need to talk to create a better world, a world not built on fear or hatred, but built on kindness.

Balancing Lights

We've had an exciting end to our winter term: on Tuesday, for the start of Hanukkah, we took Reception and Year 1 children to see a performance of Lemony Snicket's 'The Latke Who Wouldn't Stop Screaming' at JW3, the Jewish cultural centre in London.

The children were excited (some turned up early at school, just to make sure they didn't miss it) and they loved the performance, which also provoked interesting discussion amongst the staff. This was in part due to the vibrant way the story mixed Christmas carols, with Moaz tzur (the central 'hymn' for Hanukkah) and folk music, to explore the similarities and differences between Hanukkah and Christmas.latkewho

For each night of the Hanukkah, the festival of lights in school, we have lit candles, sang songs and told stories. Each night we have also learned a little about festivals of light celebrated in other cultures, courtesy of Year 1 who wrote and shared poetry about Diwali, Christmas and Halloween.

Helping children to grow up secure in their own cultures, but with respect for the beliefs and traditions of others is an important part of our inclusive approach to learning at Alma. It isn't a simple task and we don't always get mix quite right, but during this week thanks to the dedication of our staff and the support of our parents, we have really felt the power of enabling our children to appreciate the diversity of the cultures they live amongst, whilst celebrating and enjoying their own heritage.

Happy Hanukah and Shabbat shalom,

Marc Shoffren