All work and sum play

15th March 1996 at 00:00
Middle school co-ordinator Theresa Barker outlines the planning and motivation required to build a good team and reap the rewards.

Pupils can expect a full mathematical experience at Bacton Middle. The school's senior management has confirmed its status as a core subject and resourced it accordingly, not least with ample living space to enjoy and in which to grow. The teaching staff is committed. It works. We are measuring it. And it's getting better all the time.

Two principal features have been predominant in our approach across the first three key stages. Although I describe them in isolation, they have been fundamentally inseparable for the purpose of effective learning.

First, we build a strong foundation of knowledge and understanding, taking account of every individual's need through careful assessment and daily formative planning. A good scheme of work needs mid-term and long-term strategy but it is this daily cyclical process of planning, teaching, learning, assessment and planning again which gives the policy its practical working edge and makes maths progressively meaningful for pupils.

We start with the conviction that no child should be constrained by the system, secretly nurturing a growing sense of inadequacy. Every child, irrespective of ability, should feel that progress is being and can be made. Therein lies the co-ordinator's essential role: to convince everyone, staff included, that everyone is making progress. There's no better way to build a well-motivated team.

Second, we immerse the children in daily mathematical experiences drawn from the "real world" by filling the school environment with an unlimited bank of mathematical opportunities. At Bacton we are lucky. The maths department is large and self-contained. It lends itself to the creation of an Aladdin's Cave of mathematical treasures, which draws pupils in and inspires them to seek and explore and find out.

The environment we have created features four themes: television, sport, the shop and the cafe.

Television plays a central part in the lives of most pupils. An interesting bank of activities can include research into the time allocation of programme schedules. Pupils can analyse programme content and, for example, research the percentage of children's programmes made outside the UK or, more generally, the proportion of viewing time afforded to children.

There is no reason why sport in maths should be restricted to our favourite national sports. Archery, darts and even the Tour de France can offer a multitude of fascinating number and statistics-based challenges. However, having focused on football last term, I was pleasantly surprised at the level of interest from both sexes. League tables, crowd sizes, goal differences and an array of other comparative information lend themselves to spreadsheets and data bases.

An FA Carling Premiership display consisted of players representing each of the clubs caught in action with limbs striking out at pre-set angles.

Pupils were asked to estimate the angles and then relate each estimate to a letter code. When unjumbled the letters revealed a popular football slogan. The making of stylised three-dimensional models of soccer heroes also proved popular with all pupils.

For middle school-age pupils a minimum degree of realism is essential if a shop is to inspire learning. Produce a realistic local general store and even key stage 3 students want to "play" in it. You have got the obvious opportunities: reinforcing money handling and securing fluency in the four rules of decimals. But with a little imagination a shop can offer a good deal more.

Convincing items of plastic fruit and vegetables can be weighted to give pupils realistic experiences of measuring. Cereal packets can be scaled up or down and subsequent capacities can be measured and compared. Shopping catalogues can provide "large order" opportunities; for example, the purchase of 100 or 1,000 units, working within a budget, seeking a discount.

Investigating till receipts can help multiple addition and subtraction and is useful for reinforcing place value understanding. Advertising techniques can be assessed in terms of their relative values and likely effectiveness; for example, "70p off" or "10 per cent off". Pupils can be given realistic cheque books, not only a preparation for adult responsibility but also practice in writing numbers as words and raising the street credibility of the whole maths lesson.

Maths is a little more relaxed in the cafe. Cafe role play itself can be skilfully managed to present invaluable learning opportunities of a mathematical nature. But the pupils can get involved in designing and administering the service. They can help to set the scene by producing menus, preparing crockery and cutlery and designing tessellated, matching tablecloths and napkins. Prices can be entered on spreadsheets and increases negotiated. Graphs of costs and revenue can be studied by fellow pupils who can advise on business plans.

Our plan at Bacton Middle is to involving everyone in worthwhile learning experiences. Pupils are better equipped for life if their challenges at school have been appropriate, practical and enjoyable, making use of skills to which they add each day.

Theresa Barker is head of maths at Bacton Middle School in Suffolk

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