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Dramatic touch to solving problems

THE MATHS PROGRAMME. EPISODES 1-5 and 6-10. Two videos produced by the Educational Television Company for Channel 4. ETC, PO Box 100, Warwick CV34 6TZ. Pounds 45 Teachers' Guide Pounds 4.95, Age range 7 - 14. THE MATHS REVISION TUTOR. Twin video pack published by Flashback Communication, 25 Greenhead Street, Glasgow G40. Pounds 27.99, Age range 14 - 16.

The Maths Programme follows in a long tradition of imaginative, high-quality schools broadcasting that aims to help teachers motivate and interest pupils by seeing maths used in practice. The focus is on using and applying maths through a series of problem-solving situations.

The presentation is lively but the writers have not fallen into the trap of condescending jokiness in order to maintain interest. The series will be particularly useful to teachers wanting to improve their approaches to using and applying mathematics.

Each 20-minute programme has a similar format. A brief drama results in a problem to be solved and a call for help. Enter the Maths Machine - which can do pure maths but cannot solve problems - and the Maths Team - a group of real teenage students who begin to tackle the problem using a series of identified problem-solving strategies.

The problems include designing a tent, planning a car-park and investigating how far a jail-breaker can travel with Pounds 40 to spend.

The value of the programmes is in allowing pupils to see other students using mathematics to tackle "real" problems and in generating interest in situations that are worth exploring in the classroom. The series of 10 programmes was originally shown on Channel 4 in 1994.

The Maths Revision Tutor takes an opposite approach to the use of video. It is designed to be used by students revising at home for GCSE or Standard Grade exams.

The format is simple: a presenter explains how to do a series of textbook type maths problems, sometimes using simple graphics to help, and a set of questions enables the student to practise.

I struggled to see the advantage over a good textbook. Possibly some students will be more motivated by watching the screen, but the video format inevitably makes it more difficult for the learner to control the pace, to check back, and to scan for essential points or locate specific topics quickly.

Although six hours long, the two tapes cover only part of the national curriculum. Curiously, several topics where the power of dynamic images could be most helpful, such as transformation geometry, are not covered. No attempt is made to help students understand the concepts or apply the techniques to real problems.

Finally, a number of mistakes (such as in the introduction to factorising quadratics, where three out of four examples are wrong) means that teachers should think carefully before recommending this video to their students.

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