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The game of the name

Marjorie Gorman looks at ways of putting the magic back into maths

It is perhaps not surprising that many teachers feel that the emphasis on test results has taken away the joy of learning mathematics, especially in the early years. Some believe the numeracy strategy has helped to raise standards by developing children's mental arithmetic skills, but that this has been achieved at a price.

Some teachers in Wakefield that I have been working with, however, are determined to maintain excitement in lessons and bring the magic of numbers back to children. The teachers follow the Numeracy Framework for maths sessions four days a week, but on Fridays the children have a maths workshop. They are given a choice of activities roughly connected to the focus of that week's lessons, so allowing teachers to give extra support to those who need it while more able pupils have opportunities to explore their own ideas.

The week I visited the Year 1 workshop in one school, the week's focus had been on addition and subtraction facts up to 10 and several interactive displays had been set up, including an artistic arrangement of 10 green bottles and a toy bed with 10 tiny occupants that brought children's existing knowledge of traditional songs and rhymes into good use.

The teacher was talking with a group of children about the number of letters in their first names. They discussed initial letters and who had the shortest and longest names. The task was to write their names over and over again on a 10 by 10 grid, one letter in each square, until the grid was completely filled, then colour in each square that contained the initial letter. Then they had to look for any pattern on the grid and try to explain them. As they worked, this is what I heard:

"Look at my pattern. It has two stripes."

"So has mine."

Christopher got very excited. "My pattern's going down in steps. Look at that!"

"Why is that?" the teacher asked.

"Because my name has 11 letters and the grid is only 10 squares wide. I need an extra one on every row so it makes this pattern."

Several of them agreed they had the same pattern because their names had five letters and two fives made 10, so they coloured in two squares in every row.

"Suppose you had a name like Sebastian, with nine letters, what would the pattern be then?" the teacher continued.

Christopher closed his eyes to think then said: "It would be like my pattern, only it would go the other way - nine is one less than 10."

I worked with a group of children making a list of addition pairs that totalled 10. Simon completed his sheet quickly, so I asked him to turn over the paper and make pairs for some other numbers. A few minutes later he returned and showed me his work. "I didn't expect you to use numbers like these," I said. "Tell me, how did you do these?"

"Well it's easy. You see, when you know one and one is two, you know one hundred and one hundred must be two hundred, and one thousand and one thousand must be two thousand." Then he added, as an afterthought: "One million and one million is two million. Now that is a big number. How would I write that?"

Another group was creating number sentences using number and operation cards. The children had extended the original task of finding two numbers to make 10. Katy had spread the cards out across the table like this: 3+3+3+1=10. "Just look. See what I've found!" she exclaimed. Next she made 3+3+2+2=10. Other children joined in. They started challenging each other to make longer sentences and sometimes included the subtraction card. They were "playing around" with numbers, recognising patterns and relationships they hadn't seen before.

Research has shown that children don't always learn what we intend them to, but that what they do learn can be just as valuable. We often underestimate what young children can do and understand. If we can provide opportunities for them to try out some of their newly acquired skills on a fairly regular basis, in non-threatening situations such as this Friday afternoon workshop, then perhaps some of the magic that has been lost from teaching and learning can be rediscovered.

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