When Simon Kelly faces his students with the task of checking calculations found on a 3,500-year-old Babylonian tablet, their reaction is one of disbelief. "They think I'm nuts," he laughs. "They believe maths is a modern invention."
ICT is the modern-day ingredient that helps make the lesson a resounding success - one of many in a technology-based campaign Simon began a year ago to raise achievement and enhance the appeal of maths. Now students are being introduced to the latest development - an online system that could transform the way they do revision and coursework.
Simon is a maths teacher and the ICT co-ordinator for maths at Baxter College in Kidderminster, one of a number of schools that have signed up to use the Virtual-Workspace (V-W). Developed for Worcestershire and Wolverhampton LEAs, the system aims to help 14 to 19-year-olds take more control over their learning. It offers learning materials and personal web space, together with a variety of channels to enable students, teachers and full-time mentors to collaborate online.
Years 10 and 11 began exploring V-W last year, using the chatrooms to make contact with friends in other schools, and now Year 11 has begun using the system in earnest for GCSE revision.
"Originally when we planned the revision program, each teacher was going to spend an hour a week working through a topic with students after school," says Simon. "Then V-W came along - a real bonus, because rather than running sessions, we can set up assignments and send them to the students to complete in their own time, at home or in school. They can ask V-W mentors for immediate help and discuss the topics online with their peers and teachers.
"Assignments can include links to revision websites, and materials such as interactive questions or examples of marked answers. Self-assessment will feature in each assignment. First students will complete a set of activities and mark their own work with the help of a marking scheme. That will prepare them for tackling a further task which they send to us for marking."
He says that one of the main benefits of V-W is that maths students will be able to spend more time using ICT. When he arrived a year ago, the department had just 15 computers, all fairly unreliable - a contrast to his previous school, Heathfield Foundation Technology College in Sandwell, where four computer suites were dedicated to the subject.
Today every class has at least one maths-with-ICT lesson a fortnight, but that provides limited scope for becoming immersed in fascinating projects.
He says: "Lessons are still seen as one-offs, and few students have the software we use on their home computers. V-W will allow them to do longer activities and extend the range of software available at home and in school."
Simon teaches Year 9 and in introducing ICT into lessons he has made extensive use of spreadsheet software, versatile and with "unlimited potential for number, algebra, statistics and graph work". One favourite is a game based on TV's Countdown, in which students are given a row of numbers in a spreadsheet, and asked to use them in formulas to arrive at a set of target answers. They type in their formulas under the watchful gaze of Richard Whiteley and Carol Vorderman, displayed on a poster on the wall.
Simon says: "Students always pick up the concepts. This is a great activity for giving them confidence with algebraic symbols and with BODMAS (Brackets, Of, Divide, Multiply, Add, Subtract) which signifies the order in which computers and scientific calculators do calculations.
"Modelling in spreadsheets can provide a new way to cover a topic - for example, we can type in the values for two sides of a right-angled triangle, and apply Pythagoras' theorem in formulas to calculate the value of the third side." It is in this exercise that he introduces the Babylonian tablet - a clay tablet, known as Plimpton 322. It is inscribed with a mathematical table which shows that people understood the relationship between the sides of a right-angled triangle 1,000 years before Pythagoras lived. Students are provided with an English translation, and after recovering from their initial surprise they are soon hard at work typing in the numbers, using their spreadsheet models to verify the accuracy of the ancient mathematicians.
Last term all Year 9 students did a short course in Dreamweaver, the website creation software, as preparation for a revision exercise in which they have to create a mini website for maths. Simon says: "We provide a design template so they can focus on providing the content, and they present their sites to the class on the interactive whiteboard. It makes the task of revisiting work more interesting and prompts students to test their understanding of the material. When they reach Year 10 we will give them this kind of assignment via V-W."
He also plans to employ V-W to help make coursework assignments more productive. "Coursework demands intensive effort, and the deadlines can be daunting. Now we can break up the work into more manageable chunks, setting smaller targets within the larger assignment. We have tried this in the classroom, but the benefit of doing it online is that rather than handing in a chunk of work and waiting for it to be returned, the student can simply send a copy of a file to a teacher and continue working on the original. We are investigating how to offer online support within the bounds of acceptable help outlined by the exam boards."
Around 60 per cent of students have home computers and 47 per cent have internet access from home, and an ICT suite is open before and after school so that no one misses out. Simon says: "We wondered if it was an issue making children who didn't have machines stay on longer at school, but both parents and pupils say they are happy."
l Virtual-Workspace was launched last autumn and was developed for Worcestershire and Wolverhampton LEAs by Nord Anglia Education as part of a government Pathfinder project. Learning materials are designed to support the curriculum - currently for maths, English and science.
Tel: 02476 236345 www.virtual-workspace.com
Macromedia Dreamweaver is design and development software for creating professional-quality websites.
Tel: 0131 4586766 www.macromedia.comuk
Mymaths: Simon Kelly's favourite site, discovered through a TES online chatroom. "Lots of lessons plus fun activities which we often use as starters or plenaries. It costs pound;300 a year, but it is well worth it, and the subscription allows students to use the site from home."
Arcytech: "The tessellations program is ideal as an introduction to the topic, and students can provide evidence of learning by annotating screen shots."
Ambigram: "Type in your name, and the Ambigram Generator will display it so that it reads the same upside down and right side up. A new way to introduce a reflection symmetry topic."