This maths teacher’s mistakes help high-achieving students to learn

The Microsoft Innovation Educator (MIE) Expert program connects high-potential teachers across Australia – and from around the world – to share their vision and expertise in applying technology to the classroom. We caught up with Jarrad Strain, Maths Teacher at Perth Modern School, to hear about how digital technology has helped extend his gifted and talented pupils–and prepare them for a high-performing future in STEM.

Jarrad, how have you used technology to engage your students in the maths curriculum?

Perth Modern is an academically selective school, so most of our students already have a pretty high level of motivation when it comes to their studies. When I introduce digital technology to my classes, I try to do so in a way that’s both creative and open-ended. Last year, for example, we designed sets of “misleading graphs” using Excel, which gave the kids a hands-on experience of how certain charts or visuals in the media can be designed to give a less-than-honest impression of the facts. The students also got together in small teams to create a class mascot using (3D design software) TinkerCAD, then vote on their favourite submissions through a combination of Forms and Excel. A lot of the time, I’ll give them a project and they’ll take it to lengths that surprise even us teachers!

It sounds like your lessons teach more than just mathematical principles as well.

I’d have to agree. Our students tend to excel in their academic abilities, but they need training in collaboration and critical thinking as much as anyone of their age. With our mascot-designing project, for example, each group presented using either PowerPoints or videos that they recorded, then shared with the rest of the class via URL. Not only did it encourage them to receive feedback on, and improve, their designs, it also meant far less “dead time” spent passively listening to everyone else’s presentations! You could just click on the link, watch, and comment in your own time. At the same time, I have visibility over all the feedback between groups, which lets me guide them on how to provide constructive feedback…and why some suggestions may not be so appropriate.

And in terms of critical thinking?

I try to align my lessons with the real world as much as possible. A lot of our students are doing maths at levels beyond their current year, so more advanced tools like 3D modelling come in handy for testing skills. With one class, I challenged their trigonometric skills to find the height of the belltower in one of our old buildings: you couldn’t just do it by measuring the base and angle of inclination. They ended up using isometric and orthogonal drawings of the structure, modelling the building, and finally demonstrating their thought process through a combination of PowerPoint and Morph. In fact, 3D models had just become available in Morph, and the kids jumped on the update as soon as they realised what it could do.

Do you ever find it challenging to keep up with such avid learners?

I think the secret is admitting that you don’t know everything. In fact, I often use my mistakes as a teaching tool! In my OneNote notebooks, I share various exercises with my senior students that not only show my work, but also errors that I’ve made, as well as the corrections and how I’ve improved on my own processes. My “whiteboard” now is my screen-casted Surface, which lets the kids see everything I write down in real time, including any uncensored slips that I make. Sometimes I stage these mistakes so students have an example to learn from, but at other times I’ve genuinely overlooked something.

When as a teacher, you admit you’re not infallible, you also give your students a healthier perspective on failure. Showing them my mistakes helps them see that what matters isn’t so much getting the right answer every time, but constantly learning and refining our approach to the problem at hand. And none of us will ever know everything! Ironically enough, I discovered OneNote after several Year 10 students introduced it to me, and now I’m one of its biggest proponents in the school.


How are you using OneNote in the classroom?

I’m encouraging other teachers to adopt class-based notebooks to share their notes and work more closely together. Not just in Perth Modern, but throughout Western Australia. Being part of the MIE Expert program has proven to me the value of close digital collaboration–bringing the keenest, most enthusiastic teachers together to pool their expertise. For example, I’ve been trying to encourage the girls in our school to take up STEM projects, but it’s been hard getting equal gender representation in projects.

I’m also extremely excited about using OneNote to help our students build up their electronic portfolios. We’ve been encouraging them to not only capture their final designs or innovations, but the entire process of problem solving and prototyping that goes on behind the scenes.

Why is it valuable? This sounds like it has implications well beyond high school exams.

The real goal is to prepare them for future STEM study. Some of our highest-performing students, they apply for scholarships at international universities and run up against requests for a portfolio of work. If we can use OneNote to prepare them now, they’ll have no issues later. Even in Australia, some universities now say that if you miss your ATAR cut-off, show your portfolio and you’ll still be considered. But the key to a successful portfolio isn’t the work you capture, it’s the thinking you show behind it. OneNote has made capturing those processes much simpler for me, and I’m hoping my experience will help many of our kids find their highest calling in STEM as well.



Connect with Jarrad Strain on Twitter | LinkedIn

For more information on Perth Modern School, visit




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