Comedian who has it figured

23rd September 2005 at 01:00
Maths is a playground not a prison, says Johnny Ball, who talks to John Dabell about making silliness count.

Seven-year-old boy bangs on desk demanding maths homework. Do you know anyone that fits this description? Johnny Ball's teacher didn't see it coming. Homework? Maths homework?! Watch out for this pupil. He's daring.

He could even be dangerous. Johnny took the world on at an early age and he's still at it. The guru of popular maths wants us all to walk the tightrope, to take mathematical risks, to experience the power of maths and probe the world of maths with a spirit of adventure and playfulness.

Johnny was good at maths at school, an expertise developed from playing games such as bagatelle, snooker and dominoes. "I'm sure that broke the back of maths for me. We played double nines. I think all kindergartens should have kids playing double nines," he says.

Johnny's contact with number games and puzzles fed a desire to solve problems, something he sees as instrumental in unlocking potential: "Once you've got that start, you've got no fear of numbers and all other branches of maths will come to you happily and comfortably.

"The connection is beautifully simple and we should seize upon it. Maths is a playground, not a prison. If we get children naturally interacting with maths from an early age with thinking games that are enjoyable and purposeful, they are more likely to be at ease with numbers.

"It's the base for everything we do. If you're comfortable with it nothing will phase you. The danger in education today is if we frighten kids and they get this stigma. That's what we've got to avoid at all costs."

But aren't we doing all right these days? Maths teaching has come a long way over the past few years - surely children have never had it so good? Perhaps. The highly prescriptive National Numeracy Strategy and "teach and go" off-the-shelf schemes of work may have created bullet-point-compliant robots programmed to teach but not to inspire. "Teachers have to buck the system and make room to teach with vision, to enthuse kids, to excite them," Johnny says.

Breathing life into the classroom is essential and Johnny recommends how to do it - "by being silly, by being reliable and by being understanding".

It's a clear message. To take children forward in maths we've got to be ambitious and innovative, consistent, challenging and patient. Children can take the pace and we should push them to achieve, not allowing them to grow up seeing maths as a subject they're hopeless at. If children reject maths, they reject the whole curriculum because maths is such a large part of other subjects. Think about art. Gaudi, the most ingenious of all architects, said there was no art, just mathematics.

For Johnny the potential of maths is everywhere and as teachers we've got to "encourage cross-curricular maths and lace it into everything children do so that it becomes second nature".

Creative communication is the core of Johnny's approach and this is obvious with every word. It's easy to see where it came from. He was a stand-up comedian playing northern clubs, telling jokes through stories. It was to prove invaluable for children's TV. Narrative is something he's good at.

He can make difficult concepts and ideas understandable, and that's not easy. "You have to tell stories to children that have a completeness about them, paint a full picture, a picture that interests them; that's what a comedian does because he takes a situation and turns it on its head. That's what a story should be about. It includes more and more danger then removes it."

As an award-winning scriptwriter of maths and science shows and musicals, Johnny knows what works, and as teachers we should sit up and listen. If we can get our points across as succinctly and as clearly as possible through stories then we can bring any subject alive and take children with us.

Isn't it time we learnt how to tell stories again?

Although a teacher to thousands, classroom teaching never really appealed to Johnny: "My joy is talking to a different audience. If I had to come back to the same class I would become quite grey."

That's hard to imagine, but there's food for thought in this comment because it takes us back to the energy you need to inspire. Johnny has a lot of respect for visionary teachers who have a desire to be fresh every day because it is through their constant professionalism that children get excited about learning.

You know that if Johnny was inspecting a lesson he'd be looking for bucket-loads of energy, sparks of creativity and a fusion of challenge and danger so that children felt they were part of an adventure where mistakes were applauded as good tries.

Johnny is always in demand. That's not surprising, because you know that time spent talking with him is time well spent. He is packed with fascinating facts, fabulous figures and absorbing narratives and his desire to communicate them is a joy. It's difficult to measure the impact Johnny has had in making maths and science intelligible in this country but there is little doubt that it has been profound.

If maths were a skateboard, Johnny would want us to jump on board and try things, chance our arm and do things with it that we'd never done before.

He'd be there watching, shouting encouragement, "Go for it! Come back for your teeth later!" We will, Johnny.

* Johnny Ball's new book for seven to 11-year-olds, Think of a Number, is published by Dorling Kindersley at pound;9.99

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