Learning ahoy as maths project unearths hidden booty

A cross-curricular scheme draws on The Apprentice and Pirates of the Caribbean to enthuse pupils about maths

Henry Hepburn

The word "maths" can induce jitters for those generations force-fed fractions and geometry from textbooks, vaguely aware that this was meant to be good for them but never quite sure why.

They would scarcely recognise the subject at Wishaw's St Aidan's High, where maths is the starting point for running your own record label, designing theme parks and helping superheroes save the world.

Principal teacher Tony MacDonald has long been a fan of project-based work, but now the department has added in a cross-curricular dimension, showing sceptical pupils how maths can be fun and attracting interest from teachers across the country.

The catalyst has been a North Lanarkshire Council numeracy group, co- ordinated by secondary quality improvement officer Ian Cassells and his primary equivalent, Vicky Quinn, which has met six times to work on ideas for Curriculum for Excellence.

St Aidan's has pored over CfE outcomes and experiences to identify areas that were not being covered at the school. In the past year it has come up with several interdisciplinary projects.

The first, last December, involved S1s investigating famous mathematicians. ICT time was used, as well as that timetabled for maths, and literacy outcomes were at the forefront of teachers' minds as pupils prepared PowerPoint presentations.

Thereafter, the interdisciplinary projects became more dynamic. One of the most successful has enabled S2 pupils to run their own record label or football team for a year - a week in real time.

Mr MacDonald had been seeking alternatives to financial education programmes such as the Royal Bank of Scotland's MoneySense, which he thought had merit but might struggle to hold some pupils' interest. Building on an idea from young teacher John Friel, who joined the school last session, the department gave pupils a budget with which to woo up- and-coming pop groups and top footballers. The teams with most money at the end of the week would win, but pupils were as excited about coming up with imaginative names - Black Eyed Percentages, Rhombus Records, Manchester Divided - as they were about competitive maths.

When S2 pupils designed theme parks, they had to work out how long it would take to get around their site, ensuring that visitors were never left waiting in a queue too long and that the right amount of pre-paid tokens were charged for each ride. The parks were themed around different countries, opening up avenues for geography and modern languages, with some pupils writing menus for onsite cafes in foreign languages.

S1s designed cereal boxes in another project, with the close involvement of home economics and art and design staff. Nutritional content was scrutinised and promotional cartoon characters dreamt up.

The finished cereal boxes were pitched before a panel of senior staff, mimicking the format of The Apprentice, with a bewigged Mr MacDonald taking on the role of Margaret Mountford, one of Lord Alan Sugar's sidekicks.

Classroom assistant Loraine Duncan put together a polished DVD of the event, complete with music from the BBC programme. "The kids loved it," says Mr MacDonald. So did the primary heads who later gathered to hear about St Aidan's numeracy projects.

As a result, the idea for a St Aidan's Junior Apprentice was born. The details are still being worked out, but it could involve primary pupils making a smoothie and designing a carton to take before a panel of St Aidan's staff. A transition project that it is hoped will generate excitement about moving up to the big school and, with the judges showing their less serious side, ensure P7s bond with staff.

There have been several other recent numeracy projects with cross- curricular ambitions. The school held its own elections to coincide with the General Election in May, which provided data to analyse but also the chance to make party political broadcasts.

Learning outcomes and experiences have been brought to life for pupils through the thrill of helping heroes from film and television: Spiderman swung through a morass of skyscrapers using bearings and scale drawings; Batman saved Gotham City from villainy thanks to speeddistancetime calculations; Doctor Who was assisted in working out when in time he was; Jack Sparrow, Johnny Depp's character in Pirates of the Caribbean, found treasure with area calculations.

These activities are not only a fun way to present dry and difficult concepts, explains Mr MacDonald, as they can also be used to produce national assessment resources.

The department does issue some warnings. Less confident children can struggle with a more freeform style of learning, and as Mr MacDonald says: "There's an awful lot to be said for chalk and talk, and direct teaching."

He stresses that "a lot of the stuff we're doing isn't new", albeit staff would not have gone to such lengths to work with other departments in the past. The department has been lucky, he adds, to get interactive whiteboards - allowing the instant access to information that helps maintain the energy of a project - at a time, with budget cuts rife, when others have not been as fortunate.

But not everyone is inclined to play down the work at St Aidan's. Learning and Teaching Scotland is keen to profile the school's work on its website. And on March 5, at a Stirling maths conference organised by Mr Cassells, the school will share its ideas with teachers from across Scotland.


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Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn is the news editor for Tes Scotland

Find me on Twitter @Henry_Hepburn

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