On-screen animations help young children put mathematical theory in a context they can understand, says Sebastian Lander
Shouting out in class is generally not allowed at Cherrywood Community Primary School in Farnborough, Hampshire. But today it's all part of a maths lesson. Two excited classes from Years 3 and 4 are sitting in front of an interactive whiteboard displaying an animated scene of desert, cacti, rocks and dormant volcanoes... It's more like a Road Runner cartoon than a lesson on multiples.
Teacher Janna Neame has been explaining the basics of multiplication as part of number and data-handling. Martha the dinosaur pops up on the board; she wants to catch eggs numbered with a multiple of two and she needs the help of the class. While a pterodactyl flies across the screen dropping numbered eggs, pupils call out "yes" or "no" and Janna responds, either moving Martha to catch the eggs in a basket, which provokes eruptions of red-hot lava from the volcanoes, or letting them hit the ground with a gratifying splat, much to the delight of the children. This all seems to be a little bit too much like fun -and that, says Cherrywood's maths co-ordinator, Jill Green, is the point. "A topic like multiples is repetitive," she says. "And you have to find ways of keeping the kids interested. These are such interesting games, they never get bored."
The animation software they are using in the school's ICT suite is Maths-Whizz, a product recently awarded best maths software in the primary school category at the 2006 BETT education show. It covers the complete maths national curriculum, with more than 150 animated interactive exercises in each year-group package, directly matched to National Numeracy Strategy learning objectives. Shapes, symmetry, times-tables, factors and number bonds are just some of the topics dealt with in animations which include clowns, treasure hunts, car races, sheep trials and Martians on the Moon.
Janna is using the KS2 version of the software. After Martha the dinosaur has collected the right eggs with the children's help, a score of 100 per cent pops up on the board. Equipped with an understanding of the game and the mathematical theories behind it, pupils are assigned PCs where, depending on ability, they can select exercises with levels dealing with higher multiples.
The key to this resource is that pupils can take responsibility for their own learning, vital in a class that includes different year-groups and mixed learning abilities. The range of exercises available, together with the fact that teachers and pupils can access the spectrum of Maths-Whizz programs from Years 1 to 7, allows room for all of these variants. While one pupil with learning difficulties is working on a simplified interactive animation dealing with multiples of two, another can access a fast-moving game where a spider catches flies numbered with multiples of six.
"I tend not to think that these are Year 3 or 4 - I think of ability," says Janna. "In each year there are different abilities, and the technology overlaps and caters for that. Maths-Whizz allows children to work on their own level. It's fully inclusive."
Cherrywood has found that the software can be used to fulfil multiple targets on the maths curriculum. The results page flashed up at the end of each game allows teacher and pupils to assess their performance - and, says Janna, comparing scores with classmates has a healthy effect: "They encourage each other and as they think of it as fun it's not like a written exam. I've never had a child in tears because they've got a score of 20 per cent and their friend has 100."
The resource also allows pupils to make mistakes. Helpful reminders about the mathematical theory flash up on the screen when questions are answered incorrectly. Pupils can then go back and have another go. "It lets them get it wrong," says Janna. "Repetition reinforces the theory and they don't get to the end of the lesson feeling that they've failed."
Some of the animations are timed, which, says Jill, covers the basic objectives in the numeracy strategy. "It encourages them to speed up and increases their problem-solving skills," she says.
At Cherrywood, Maths-Whizz has been used as one of many teaching tools to achieve curriculum targets, predominantly after initial classroom-based tuition. It sets the mathematical theory in a context pupils can relate to.
"The animations are colourful and the images help pupils to remember curriculum topics like multiples," says Janna. "If they've enjoyed using the program, they remember the visual image and refer back to some of the things they have learnt from the animation. Sometimes, I can take elements from Maths-Whizz back into the classroom so they make the association. As they are interested in things like computer games and cartoons, it's in a language they understand."
Once they have completed the on-screen tasks, the children return to the whiteboard, which now looks more like a traditional blackboard. They close their eyes while Janna drags numbers into the virtual space. They must then open their eyes and guess the common multiple, demonstrating the ability to apply their knowledge to a real mathematical problem.
It is not surprising that Jill has seen an improvement in maths performance in the past two years. "Maths is many of the kids' favourite subject and performance has improved," she says. "Some play on Maths-Whizz on a rainy day -they have fun and see it as a game."
Oli White works at Whizz Education, creators of the resource. He says the program's appeal is its simplicity and flexibility: "It's very simple to use, and one of the main points when we were developing the product was that teachers wouldn't need to be trained to use it. It has the flexibility to be used in different environments - with whole classes, small groups and individuals, either teacher-led or working alone."
l Maths-Whizz is sold according to year group and is licensed for school site use. Years 12 packs cost pound;250. Years 3-5, pound;375 and Year 7, Pounds 500. www.whizzeducation.com
Jill Green says: "Sit and play with Maths-Whizz yourself and find out exactly what it can do. Once you are familiarised, write it into your planning. It can be kept as a marker and record for teachers of younger age-groups on how to use the program. Remember that the maths vocabulary used in the program is very useful. It gives a graphic illustration of the words."
Oli White says: "This is a comprehensive resource and Maths-Whizz can be adapted to fit into the teacher's style of teaching. It can also be used as a perfect planning tool as the teachers can instantly find an animation relating to a learning objective on the curriculum."