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Teacher's pet;Mathematics

Britain's first home-grown integrated learning system for primaries makes monitoring pupils' progress simple, writes Ian Wilson.

A few years ago RM introduced the US integrated learning system SuccessMaker for secondary pupils. This software sets tasks for students, assesses their responses, sets individualised tasks according to their ability levels and can report back to teachers. Its anglicised version was shown to raise achievement in maths. Now from RM comes its own Maths Learning System for primary schools.

It is the first integrated learning system (ILS) to be developed by RM in this country, using many of the same ideas to make management of pupils' progress as easy as possible. The software is supplied on CD-Rom, at pound;495 for a single computer installation. This sounds expensive, but RM claims that 10 to 12 pupils can use a single computer for 15 minutes every day, with little disruption to normal teaching. A copyright security device - a "dongle" - plugs into the computer's parallel port; without it, the program will not run. Installation on a multimedia computer running Windows 95 was very easy and you are then taken through a trial run.

The activities are based on levels 1 to 4 of the curriculum. Headphones are needed since much of the support given is on audio only. There are more than 10,000 activities, organised in blocks. Six blocks contain activities covering strands of work up to level one; five blocks have work up to level two, and so on. A clearly set-out grid shows which of the strands of the attainment targets are being covered in each block. The activities are varied and clearly displayed. Animation and characters are used where necessary to demonstrate something that the child is expected to copy. The emphasis throughout is on building mental fluency, and very few of the activities need pencil and paper.

The work is presented in a seemingly random fashion and, a nice touch this, even the screen backgrounds change to eliminate boredom. If pupils give a wrong answer, they are first told it is wrong, then if they again make a mistake they are given a clue. If they still get it wrong, the correct answer is given. If this happens, or if the correct answer comes only at the third attempt, the program automatically regresses to an earlier skill in the same topic. The pupil will almost certainly have been successful at this, and so she is given the impression that she is succeeding most of the time. When the pupil has successfully revised the skill a number of times, she is moved back again to the skill with which she previously had problems. Similarly, pupils who are successful in attaining a skill are progressed on to the next skill in the topic.

The great strength of this program is in its management system. Teachers first have to set it up to contain details of each of the pupils, and although this can be time-consuming it is fairly straightforward. The point at which the pupil starts within the blocks can be manually adjusted, as can a "confidence level" which adjusts the way in which the program deals with progression and regression through the activities. A high confidence setting means that the child will get an audio prompt after a short period of inactivity and, after making a mistake and regressing to an earlier activity, she will return more quickly to the original activity for another attempt.

RM suggests that 15 minutes per day is the most beneficial way of using the program, but the teacher can set whatever time period is thought best for each pupil. The teachers' program contains a number of charts and reports that enables you to keep track of progress and identify any areas of difficulty. These show, for example, the child's position in the course, any problem areas, rates of progress and so on. Teachers can record short comments which are attached to pupil records and these are then printed out when a pupil report is produced. This report is well designed and gives a comprehensive picture of children's progress and achievements.

This is an impressive program which comes with excellent documentation. Included in the package is an independent evaluation report which maintains that the system contributed to significant learning gains for the children using it in pilot schools.

The RM Maths Learning System does require a substantial outlay of money, but I recommend it very highly.

For a video using RMMaths in the primary classroom, ring 01235 826700 Ian Wilson is headteacher of Woodcote High School, Coulsdon, Croydon, south London


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