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Heading in the right direction

Q I teach two Year 7 groups in an inner city comprehensive. This is my first year teaching maths. Recently, I taught the students compass directions and there was a great contrast in ability and interest. What activity would help them really grasp the different compass points?

A I have three suggestions, the first of which is a whole-class activity that's also good for learning about bearings. Pupils take turns to follow the directions given by the rest of the group. The first pupil is blindfolded and kept outside while the group rearrange the room to create a maze, which they are going to help them negotiate. When the pupil comes in they are placed somewhere in the room and told which direction is north (they are told this each time they are given instructions). Each pupil has a turn at giving them an instruction, such as "head north-west three paces". Initially, you will find it helpful to have the compass points on a large piece of paper as a crib sheet.

I have taught this lesson successfully with pupils up to and including Year 10. When teaching compass points and bearings it's important to teach this from different orientations and to change the position of north, so it isn't always straight up the page. Following a map becomes hard when you haven't had this practise.

I once worked with a low-ability Year 10 group on this topic. The group included three pupils with full special educational needs statements. I used Pilot, a software program from Smile Mathematics (, which is part of the MicroSMILE Movement package.

The program is in six stages and pupils had to pass each one before moving on to the next, as they worked towards gaining a pilot's licence. They could retake stages if necessary and their progress was saved, so they could return to the stage they had previously reached.

Pilot is an excellent program which provides real challenges that enhance understanding. The nice thing about using it was being able to help each pupil and discuss the problems relating to their specific learning difficulty. Initially, we found it helpful to put the compass directions on a sheet of tracing paper that they could overlay on the screen.

Mike Quigley, a maths teacher who now works with Smile Mathematics, describes how he used the program with a group: "I used it in the late 1990s when my school got an interactive whiteboard. The class was a low-set Year 8, but there was a range of ability, particularly with their spatial reasoning. I was in a computer suite and the children were working in pairs at the computer. The initial starting activity provided an excellent lesson-starter and stimulated a focused question and answer session. This stage has a ship's steering wheel in which pupils have to match the points of the compass. The second part of this introduction changes the orientation of the direction of north.

"I then took the pupils through the first few moves of stage two, so they knew how the program worked and what the end objective was - getting the pilot's licence. After the initial stage of familiarisation with compass points, the player moves on to stage two. Here they are at the cross and they have to steer the boat to the flag using the correct compass directions. They collect six flags correctly and move up a stage.At the most difficult stage the compass is no longer visible and the direction of north is no longer directly up the page.

"Having the multiple stages was a great aid to differentiation and the licence was a simple, but fantastic motivational aid. The children were engaged for the whole lesson and my time was taken up by moving around the class talking to the children. I had the points of the compass written on a piece of paper in my hand, as this helped children on the higher stages. We finished the lesson with me standing in the middle of the room with one of my arms pointing in a direction which I called north, and I asked individual children what their compass point would be, relative to my north. Some children who didn't get their licence actually wanted to come in at lunch-time to get theirs.

"One thing I found useful was how well it worked on an interactive whiteboard, as everything was driven by on-screen buttons requiring no keyboard inputs."

Another great way to help students learn about bearings is to use a Roamer - a small programmable robot from Valiant Technology (, which moves via directions that the operator inputs. It went down a treat with primary and secondary students at a maths club I ran; they were soon devising their own activities.

Using technology like this it develops your teaching skills as the discussion and interactivity helps in understanding some of the problems faced by learners.

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