Counting on consistency

21st March 1997 at 00:00
What did you learn in school today? For pupils in schools participating in the pilot scheme of the National Numeracy Project, this question can be answered exactly. By the end of five years, the scheme will have directly affected pupils in 1,000 schools in 12 local education authorities (on a rolling two-year programme).

Each school will have benefited from training for maths co-ordinators and senior management, free supply cover while training is shared with classroom teachers, a whole-school maths audit, free project materials and familiarity with the all-embracing project framework. Individual children will be assessed against baseline assessments in written and mental maths, with a ten-minute personal interview to set targets (like "know your six times table" or "use a ruler correctly") each term.

The National Numeracy Project was set up by the Department of Education and Employment last September, in partnership with the Office for Standards in Education, the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, the Teacher Training Agency and the Basic Skills Agency. Each of the 12 LEAs has set up a local centre for numeracy and has appointed two consultants to work with groups of schools. The consultants meet regularly at the new National Centre for Literacy and Numeracy in Reading, where the project is organised with formidable efficiency by its director, Anita Straker.

But what is it exactly that teachers are going to be delivering in their four-times a week "maths hour" of 50 minutes?

Each lesson must consist of an initial 10 minutes' instruction and whole-class interactive mental calculation in which mathematical vocabulary is developed (bye-bye "take away" hello "subtract"); a main teaching activity with children working in groups of preferably four and no more than six (this is where a degree of differentiation can be built in); then a final plenary session where children can share, explain and demonstrate their work and their teacher can give an outline for the future. Consolidating homework is important and schools may also have to allow pupils time and space to work at school.

It is a very intense method of teaching, based partly on the interactive ways of teaching number used in south Germany and Switzerland and now being trialled in Barking and Dagenham. With its extreme emphasis on mental calculation it is in tune with the times but may require greater efforts for primary teachers to master it at first. It is important to bear in mind, too, that it is a numeracy project and does not cover shape, work on which is allotted to one other lesson a week and additional work on shape, space and measuring in art, technology and science.

The framework covers three related strands of numeracy:

* numbers and the number system;

* calculations

* making sense of number problems.

It has precise hierarchies of attainment targets to be built up over the primary years. Pupils should:

* have a sense of the size of a number and where it fits in the number system

* know basic number facts and recall them quickly

* use what they know to figure out an answer mentally

* calculate accurately, both mentally and with paper and pencil, drawing on a range of strategies

* use a calculator sensibly

* recognise which operation is needed to solve which problem

* be able to solve a problem using more than one single-step operation

* know for themselves that their answers are reasonable

* explain their methods and reasoning using correct terminology

* suggest suitable units for making measurements, and make sensible estimates of measurements

* explain and make sensible predictions from the numerical data in a graph, chart or table.

As the lesson builds, teachers need to bear in mind the different strategies suitable for different groupings. In the initial orally-conducted 10 minutes, a range of questions, both open and closed, need to be prepared; a variety of short activities made ready; and questions should target particular individuals.

In the 30-minute small group period, reinforcement or, conversely, extension activities need to be ready to support the learning needs of different pupils; ground rules firmly established to ensure co-operation, minimise interruption and allow children to find resources needed efficiently; and the time equally allocated between groups so that the teacher is not in short supply.

In the final plenary session, the process of evaluation needs to be handled briskly, allowing pupils to reflect and identify what is important while drawing the lesson to a crisp close. Lesson plans devised locally are added to the framework.

The lesson activities described in the examples given above can be linked with materials from four published schemes: the Abacus Teachers' Cards (Ginn); BEAM number at key stages 1 and 2 (Islington LEA); Mental Mathematics and New Cambridge Mathematics Teachers Books (both Cambridge University press). These are materials for teachers to use in structuring lessons, not actual work activities.

Full details from The National Centre for Literacy and Numeracy, London House,

59-65 London Street, Reading

RG1 4EW. Tel: 01189 527500

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