A racing certainty

14th May 2004 at 01:00
Meet Michael Cunningham, an O-level maths failure who earns his living as a tick-tack. The tricks of his trade would engage any class of learners. James Sturcke reports on the drive to find relevant models for lessons

Michael Cunningham climbs onto his wooden box, slips on his white fingerless gloves and lets his hands do the talking. A finger on the top of his head means one, a dab on the nose is two, bringing his wrists together in front of his chest is ten.

It's the first race of the afternoon at Beverley, just outside Hull. As the horses get ready, Michael, one of only two full-time licensed tick-tacks left in the country, speeds up. He links together the 12 number symbols with the 37 signs for the betting odds and the eight gestures for cash which, in the right combination, cover the entire number and betting system. A furlong away, a bookmaker scribbles down the starting prices that Michael - now a flurry of arm swishes, waves and points - is signalling.

"Basically, I'm just telling those bookies over there the odds that the ones here in front of me are offering," he says. "One of them can also tell me they have reached their liability limit, so I act as a hedging service putting them in contact with other bookies around the course prepared to handle the bets.

"I've been doing this job for 40 years. My dad was a tick-tack for his dad, who was a bookmaker. They were there when Hyperion won the Derby in 1933.

"It's just practice. I know 11-2 is 100-18 and 3,000-540. I don't have time to think about it. If I did, the odds would have changed. The strange thing is, I was bottom of my class at maths and failed my O-levels. At the beginning I just knew I could earn 75p for a paper round or I could come to the races on a Saturday afternoon and earn pound;2.50. That much I could add up."

Michael, now 60, doubts that there will be any tick-tacks left working within a decade. Recently, his work has been replaced by two-way radios and mobile phones. And bookmakers' clerks, famed for near impossible skills of mental agility - they held the starting prices and bets for an entire afternoons' race in their heads so they could tell the bookmaker his liability but keep it from the taxman - have gone, thanks largely to laptop computers.

While the tick-tacks' trade has come under threat, the trend for using visual and practical tools to teach maths and numeracy skills has gone in the other direction. Policy-makers have realised that maths classes made up of hours, days and even years of following hieroglyphics and squiggles on a blackboard have left a fair chunk of the population literally nonplussed.

Nigel Robinson, a maths consultant for Niace, says: "An appropriate context is critical to effective delivery of adult numeracy. Numbers are more easily grasped if they create a mental picture for learners and if they relate to learners' interests. The learning of maths involves progressing from the concrete to the representational to the abstract. Hands-on visual methods may greatly aid the learning progress."

Niace is running a nationalhigh-street poster campaign showing how digital calculators - more commonly known as fingers - can be used to do the nine times table. Hold up your hands, palms up. For, say, four times nine, curl down the fourth finger on your left hand. How many fingers are there to the left of that finger? Three. How many to the right? Six. Three and six, so the answer is 36.

Noyona Chanda, of London's adult numeracy professional development centre, part of South Bank University, says: "The two main ideas behind the use of visual tools are to help learners make sense of numeracy and to make numeracy teaching more interactive.

"One of my favourites is the use of a clock face to teach fractions. Most people remember being taught by cutting up a pie or a cake. But it is quite a big jump for many people, moving from an obvious shape of a quarter of a cake to a fraction written one over four. With a clock, because they have numbers on them and most adults are comfortable telling the time, they are a mediation between shapes, fractions and numbers."

Since opening last June, the centre has taught more than 100 tutors to improve the range of visual tools they use in the classroom. Among its resources, it has triangular dominoes to teach polygons and advocates the use of dice to help addition and subtraction skills. Many of the resources are available online.

"Visual tools are not being used as much as they should be in the classroom," says Ms Chanda. "If you visit numeracy classes a lot of it is still very much worksheet driven."

The push for more visual tools to be used in teaching stems from a 1999 report by Sir Claus Moser, which famously declared that up to 7 million British adults struggled with basic reading and number skills. Moser found numeracy teachers were failing to engage adult learners, a central aim embedded in the resulting adult numeracy core curriculum, which was published two years later.

Tracy Part, numeracy teacher and trainer at Lewisham college's professional development centre in south London, has been won over by it. "I think we thought the curriculum would be just more paperwork," she says. "But in fact it is a flexible document which acts as a safety net but is not constrictive."

For her, the biggest obstacles to providing more visual tools in classes have been the time constraints on tutor training and class preparation.

"When the curriculum came out we all went on a three-day course but there is a big leap from that to the Fento (Further Education National Training Organisation) qualifications at level 3 and level 4 (A-level and degree equivalent), which all Lewisham's vocational and numeracy tutors are taking respectively.

"There's also the question of time required to make the visual tools for classes. At the beginning, tutors just did not have enough hours in the day to make them."

Lewisham is building up a resource database on the college intranet to correct that, though that in itself is not without its challenges. Ms Part says: "To teach symmetry we use prints of Renoir masterpieces with some groups and butterflies with others. It is important you know the class and the tools match its level."

The key is to make the examples relevant to students' vocational interests, she says, and this is something backed up by work-based learner providers.

Richard Goss, of the Adult Learning Inspectorate, comments: "Inspectors increasingly meet learners who fail to understand numerical or mathematical concepts at school but learn them quickly during their work-based learning courses. The practical application of a mathematical concept is hugely important. When the concept is visual and real it has meaning for learners."

Oakfield Solutions on Tyneside, which has the main E2E (entry to employment) contract in Newcastle, teaches key numerical concepts to its mechanics students through measuring tyre tread. Patrick Tully, post-16 manager, explains: "We send them off to the police first to go and find out the minimum legal tread. We work very hard to integrate basic skills and vocational training. They apply the theory and the penny drops. Most of them were not successful at school and have big barriers to learning because they don't think they can do it. But when they apply it in a practical situation some of them fly."

Making maths fun is another key ingredient. In 2001, Stockton Riverside College teamed up with Middlesbrough Football Club and won a pound;75,000 BT Lifelong Learning award, which was more than matched by redevelopment cash. Three years later more than 200 students have completed the Football First course gaining level 1 (low-grade GCSE-equivalent) qualifications in football coaching.

Dawn Eccles, the Middlesbrough project manager, says: "You see them coming in on the first day, heads down because they've got no confidence. They learn numeracy by studying the football league tables, working out goal difference and moving on to percentage skills by looking at the capacity of the stadium and how full it is when Liverpool visit.

"They are interested in it, they do much better than they thought they would and their confidence grows. It's fun and they don't even realise they're learning. Every month the best student gets to meet the Premiership team's players and gets their photo taken with manager Steve McClaren.

Money couldn't buy that."

Paul Smith, 17, has recently completed the course. He says: "I got a U in my GCSE maths but I've passed my level 1 thanks to Football First. Nobody listened at school and it was baffling. Here there is a lot of support and patience from the tutors and encouragement and I've found I can do it. I am not scared by maths any more."

Useful websites www.lsbu.ac.uknumeracywww.mcs.surrey.ac.ukPersonalR.KnottFibonaccifibna t.htmlNoNogoldenwww.geom.uiuc.edudemo5337s97bspiral.htmlwww.curiousmath.co mwww.bbc.co.ukskillswise

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