Number crunching made easy

Jenny Houssart

The revised maths curriculum aims to provide a more user-friendly approach to data handling. Jenny Houssart reports. At first glance it seems as if the new maths Order has been written in double-speak. It clearly states that the Handling Data attainment target does not apply at key stage 1, yet data handling is present in the programme of study as a sub-section of Number. What remains in that sub-section is briefer and less prescriptive. Sorting and classifying are still there and it is specified that pupils should collect, record and interpret data arising from an area of interest.

I visited Castlethorpe first school in north Buckinghamshire to see how this approach was working. The answer was "rubbish" - following visits to the local landfill site and recycling depot, the children had started to ask questions about the local waste collection service and people's views of it.

Early stages of their work had included designing and typing out questions, delivering their questionnaires to the village, collecting the completed forms and setting up a computer database for the information. They solemnly explained that designing questions and setting up a database had required much thought, but they seemed undaunted by their tasks and were clearly used to taking decisions.

I sat with some children entering information into the computer and discovering difficulties in the process. One question had asked villagers: "Do the dustmen collect all of your rubbish?" The children expected yes or no answers and there was quite a heated debate about classifying the answer "most of it". This was finally entered as "no". The response "yes and no" caused more problems. The real data was as messy as the topic and this messiness caused them to deploy many of the skills of using and applying mathematics such as discussion, questioning, overcoming difficulties, reasoning and explaining.

The boxed statement that introduces the key stage 1 programme of study says such skills should be set in the context of other areas of mathematics and that was certainly evident here. The statement also suggests that use of numbers should permeate work on handling data. This was evident in the sorting and ordering of the 73 questionnaires by number, which involved frequent spontaneous subtractions to find out how many they still had to do. Later, when the data was entered and they were asking questions, I was treated to an explanation of percentages.

Data handling seemed alive and well at Castlethorpe. A recent topic on "Ourselves" led to children recording their findings using charts, diagrams and pictures. At one point groups of children were asked which part of the body they wanted to study further. This could have been a recipe for mayhem, but it actually led to one group considering head size and "brain power" and another looking at children's clothes sizes and considering the possible range of sizes for a seven-year-old.

"You've got to plan for data handling," said Castlethorpe's headteacher Janet Skelding. "We give the children opportunities but I don't want to be too restrictive."

Mary Harrison-Jones, the reception and Year 1 teacher, used a teddy bears' expedition to introduce data handling. The children had to sort sets of objects to help the teddies make the difficult decision of what to take on the long journey. Apparently this prompted a lengthy discussion about hairbrushes.

Ms Harrison-Jones regards sorting and classifying as fundamental. They evolve into various ways of representing data, such as wall charts containing drawings of children's faces showing who liked vegetable soup and who didn't. You could tell which category they belonged to by their expression.

Older children are encouraged to take more responsibility for deciding how to collect and represent information.

This school's approach to data handling will be reassuringly familiar to teachers and is consistent with the new documents. It is also heartening that the aspects of data handling valued by Janet Skelding and Mary Harrison-Jones are those which have been retained despite the reduction in content at key stage 1. Data handling at this key stage has not been consigned to the rubbish bin. It has been recycled and what has emerged is flexible and manageable.

Handling Data in the national curriculum

* Key stage 1Classifying, representing and interpreting data appear as part of the Number programme of study.Handling Data attainment target does not apply.Probability is nolonger included.

* Key stage 2Shorter and less prescriptive list of the types of chartand graph required.Encouragement of purposeful enquiry and formulation of questions about issues chosen by pupils.Recognition of uncertain and misleading conclusions encouraged.Handling continuous data no longer required.

* Key stages 3 and 4Programme of study emphasises the place of purposeful enquiry and experimental work.Interpretation valued including critical evaluation of results.Flow diagrams, network diagrams and conversion graphs no longer required.Some content moved to higher levels.

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Jenny Houssart

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