A carefully-planned diet

17th October 1997 at 01:00
HUNGARIAN PRIMARY MATHEMATICS CLASSES. National Numeracy Project Video Pounds 20 plus VAT.

Paul Noble is mesmerised by a Hungarian approach to early maths learning. But would it work here?

Mention Hungary again and I'll...!" The threat was left hanging in the air, but it was clear my companion had heard enough about what went on in Nyiregyhaza primary. Quite why images from a National Numeracy Project video of mathematics being taught at a school in eastern Hungary should linger so long in my consciousness is an interesting question. You see, in Hungary ... But there I go again.

The strategies are not amazingly innovative. You would not have to go far to find a teacher in Britain using techniques similar to these (OFSTED captured some English examples on film for its recent video Teachers Count). The emphasis given to the language of mathematics and the use of language as a tool for thinking is not unusual either, and it was not surprising to see that at kindergarten, before the start of formal schooling, the focus was firmly on mathematics as it is spoken.

"What is the opposite of on the right?" asks the teacher. "On the left, " is the instant response. The children practise classifying sets of objects. "Lorry: tram; car...?" A young child offers "vehicles". Then comes a game to familiarise children with the attributes of shapes and then another to test their understanding of ordinal number. Each child works with a simple map on the desk around which a rabbit is taken for a walk. "Pick up your rabbit and take it under the table."

Throughout this lesson and indeed most of the lessons shown, nothing is written down, neither are the children expected to do any reading. Yet standards are high - the mental agility of the nine-year-olds is particularly impressive. Negative numbers do not seem to be a problem to them, neither do they seem unduly ruffled when asked to deal with quite abstract algebraic sentences.

From the earliest days the children in Nyiregyhaza are trained to cope with whole class teaching, that is, face-the-front responses to questions and blackboard work, a process started in kindergarten.

Once in school they are given a diet of carefully planned exercises that they all tackle simultaneously. Critical to this teaching process is the liberal use of a reward system; children are placed facing the teacher; and the interjection of frequent short breaks (involving singing, for example) adds variation and aids concentration.

"Could you teach like that?" ask the notes accompanying the video. Well, yes. But I'm less sure whether it would achieve what has been achieved in Hungary, mainly because teaching in Britain is organised in a dramatically different way. Would the strategies work without the structures that support them? It was this question that secured the video messages so firmly in my mind.

Consider the wider picture. The average class size in Hungary is not dissimilar to here (30 to 36) but, although our hardworking and clearly effective Hungarian colleagues have a long working day, they only teach for 15 hours a week - or about two-thirds of every day. They use the rest of the time for planning and preparation. Hands up anyone who can match this?

All lessons have breaks between them and relatively little time is devoted to written exercises - these are largely done as homework. Work is marked at the beginning of the following lesson by the pupils themselves. Special small classes, taught in the same way and doing basically the same sort of work, are set up to cater for pupils who fail to keep up, although after two years many of these children are successfully reintegrated into ordinary classes, the rest are then sent to special schools. Parents are also discouraged from transferring children from kindergarten to school until they reach the required standard.

All the teachers on the video display a confident grip of their material, perhaps because all primary teachers in Hungary have to study maths to at least A-level standard.

Even though the strategies are not revolutionary, and I am sure that some are - or will be - practised in our primary schools, I believe that to try to transplant them, without some pretty fundamental changes to the way we organise our school day, would be to invite failure by Nyiregyhaza standards.

This video from eastern Europe (with sub-titles) strikes me as pretty heady stuff - subversive even. In 1953, the Hungarian football team came to Wembley and took the English team apart - being more nimble with the ball than our players were without it - and started a revolution. Perhaps clandestine groups of teachers will soon be seen huddled around video machines, clutching coffee mugs and Semtex, plotting their first moves?

Paul Noble is head of St Andrew's Primary School, Blunsdon, Wiltshire

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