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Knotty or gritty? You choose

A refresher programme for staff offers different approaches. Sue Jones reports

New-style workshops have been created to help tutors share ideas and to revitalise them for the fight against poor skills among adults. Numeracy Energiser conferences were set up by Niace and funded by the Government after an official inspection report last autumn raised serious concerns about numeracy provision.

The first 130 tutors attended four over-subscribed residential conferences between February and March to tackle issues identified by Ofsted, the schools inspection watchdog, and the Adult Learning Inspectorate.

One issue is the isolation numeracy tutors feel, says Nigel Robinson, organiser of the conferences. "It is an opportunity to talk to colleagues, get fresh ideas and a chance to reflect on trying to deliver numeracy in a context appropriate to the learner instead of in dry isolation."

Teaching for adults must be adapted to their needs rather than following a hierarchical approach, he says. Although there is a national core curriculum, adults are already working with a very patchy knowledge and understanding of concepts, sometimes half-remembered from years before. And they are constantly surrounded by numbers at home, at work and in the media.

Janet Swinney, a workshops co-ordinator, says: "Numeracy tutors are trying to deal with two different but interrelated curricula. One is the core curriculum, the other is what you might describe as 'Life, the Universe and Everything.' These are the social contexts of which we are a part and which are permeated by numbers."

The conferences aim to help teachers look at broad issues of numeracy, get a feel for the nature of numbers, manipulate figures and look at ways in which adults can use numeracy to solve problems.

Adults are constantly dealing with problems in their everyday lives, says Ms Swinney. "Problem solving can't wait until they have graduated cum laude. It's part of their here and now."

Workshops have two approaches, depending on how people like to approach mathematical understanding. The first approach uses knotty puzzles that help people reflect on the nature of numbers and how they work, such as how to calculate the speed of the train that may hit you before you can run to the end of the bridge.

The alternative approach uses investigations into social problems that are more clearly understood when we use numbers to help. Since there is a correlation between poor numeracy and low income, poor health and shorter life expectancy, many adult learners are interested in issues such as low pay, equality of opportunity, health and the quality of the environment.

Some of them prefer to get to grips with the social issues and then develop the numeracy skills to improve their critical understanding.

"The conference broadened our outlook on numeracy," says Philly Kafeero, lecturer at Tower Hamlets College. "You can be creative and look at global issues like world debt, or issues to do with women, and not just shopping."

Details and analysis of conference papers and teaching materials is at

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