Annie Owen on an early-years scheme that allows children to set their own targets. Teachers of mathematics for the early years face a complex task. The curriculum (as defined by the national curriculum programme of study) is actually quite short, yet will take between two and three years to complete. Most young children progress quite slowly - some painfully so - and they usually need to meet and revisit concepts several times and in different guises.
The challenge is to provide different contexts which will hold the children's interest. Thematic or topic work provides a naturally changing context where objects can be sorted, counted or measured and real mathematical problems tackled. Cross-curricular links provide further opportunities for revisiting ideas, for example in music or physical education. Mathematical games can be devised using familiar devices such as dominoes, cards and dice. Open-ended tasks can ensure that the children set their own level of difficulty.
To provide this variety is not in itself difficult, but to assure that you keep a balance, and that there is equality of provision, that all are working at the right level and that children get any consolidation they need is most certainly not easy.
These concerns, plus the more recent requirements of accountability and national assessment, are causing more and more schools to choose published mathematics schemes for their early years.
When considering a new scheme, teachers need to look at the richness of the children's experiences as well as the help offered to solve the practical problems of organisation, record-keeping and assessment. The new KMP Basic scheme is an interesting case in point.
KMP is a mathematics scheme of long standing within junior and secondary schools, which has now been extended into the early years. KMP Basic is organised into four modules: Intro, A, B and C, each containing all the equipment which the children will need to complete a set of carefully-graded tasks - in addition to the teacher's loose-leaf manual and demonstration cards, there are task cards, game sets (playing cards, sorting equipment etc), base cards on which activities take place, copymasters (or pupil workbooks), enrichment booklets and record sheets.
There are 24 tasks in the Intro and 30 in each of the other modules. Half of each module is devoted to number, the remaining tasks being equally divided between pre-algebra, shape and space and data-handling.
All the early tasks begin with group discussion and teacher demonstration, progressing in the later stages to pupil-pupil discussion in many cases. Each task contains practical activity and recording and consolidation on paper - either on photocopied sheets (which can be folded to form a booklet) or in workbooks. The teachers' manual provides further enrichment ideas for each task. Pointers for assessment and record sheets are also provided.
This is an extremely attractive scheme, made of tough materials in bright primary colours. The practical activities are varied and the illustrations interesting to young children. It is very easy to administer - every counter, die and in one case even miniature dinosaur is provided separately for each task. All concepts are covered up to level 2 of the national curriculum and documentation outlining these links is to be published. Also, as every task has an accompanying worksheet, there will be no lack of written evidence of attainment.
But there is a price for this accessibility. Compared with some other new schemes for this age group, KMP Basic is quite limited in scope. Apart from a few number concepts, most ideas are met only once, in only one context. The 114 tasks, divided over three years (on average) make roughly one task per week, not accounting for the advice that "It is not expected that every pupil will need to do every task". That some children will "benefit from revisiting tasks" is quite disheartening, as they would most likely do better to meet the concept in a different way. The enrichment ideas, and presumably the enrichment booklets which are now being written, will help to some extent, but I believe most users are going to find that they need to supplement the material.
I would love to have this material in my class, but I would probably not use it as intended. I would use the enrichment tasks - on the whole the only open-ended tasks in the scheme - and the games to supplement my scheme of work and the worksheets would be useful for collecting written evidence of understanding. However, I am not sure such use would justify the expense.
Annie Owen is a lecturer in mathematics at Homerton College, Cambridge