Creative little numbers

7th July 2000 at 01:00
Times are changing in this digital era, and so should the way children learn their times tables. With the wealth of multimedia materials available, maths has never looked so exciting, says Keith Jones

How many adults today have fond memories of school mathematics? Did they really learn the seven times table by chanting it with their classmates or was it a case of "I can remember the tune but I can't remember the words"?

Will those be the memories of today's children or have things changed? It seems to me, albeit as an outsider these days, that teachers are now bringing much more variety and inventiveness into their classrooms with new approaches and resources.

I sometimes cringe when I look back on my own teaching career. Did I have to direct it all? Did I really spend all that time demonstrating an algorithm on the blackboard? Did I have to set pupils those pages and pages of "sums" to reinforce the method. Did I need to be the gatekeeper to their mathematical knowledge?

Recently, BBC Wales produced the Teaching Numeracy in the Primary Schools package of print and video materials for teachers and trainers. We found many talented teachers across Wales who were truly skilled and creative. They were able to motivate pupils and provide challenging activities for the whole class. They ensured that each child took part with a refreshing willingness to "have a go" - and without fear of failure.

The children used ICT resources with ease and "talked" mathematics with confidence. This was teaching and learning of high quality. For me it underlined the plain fact that the most valuable resource in any classroom is, and will remain, the inspirational teacher.

However, these teachers were also redefining their own role in the classroom. The learning was, of course, directed and planned - but not always by them. The children were questioning, exploring, evaluating and discussing freely with obvious benefits. It is in supporting this subtle change in the teacher's role that I believe educational broadcasters such as the BBC can help.

The current talk in broadcasting is of convergence and interactivity. These can be powerful levers for change in education. By harnessing the creative skills of the television and software industries, we can aid the teacher's migration from instructor and informer to facilitator and planner of differentiated learning experiences.

From the early days of school radio, to television, video, CD-Rom and now websites, educational producers ad teachers have used the technology of the day to best effect. We are now entering a new era for educational resources, and digital technology is critical because it revolutionises communication. It can transform the dialogue from a one-to-many to one-to-one interaction, enabling pupils to engage actively with what's on the screen in front of them.

The child at the PC can have access to a huge bank of multi-media content. Pupils can work at their own level, guided by the teacher, with their progress tracked and monitored along with their classmates.

Is this a role for the BBC? I would say yes, for two reasons - because it should and because it can. The opportunity is there for us to use our depth of production experience to contribute to a new and lively age of learning.

The BBC's educational vision was set out in Greg Dyke's first speech as director general and includes the provision of a digital core curriculum for four to 16-year-olds. It is a huge challenge and one which calls for productive alliances with content suppliers, technology companies and educational experts.

Partnerships of this kind will be vital to co-ordinate the development of materials in the years to come. Together we can bring digital learning via screens to every child at school and at home. We can support the evolution of the learning family by crossing the boundaries of school and home, supporting teachers, assisting parents and inspiring children.

In BBC Wales our well-established approach has been to forge partnerships across the educational spectrum, bringing specialist expertise to bear on all elements of our projects.

We intend to adopt the same principles in developing new multi-media materials that make the best use of ICT and broadband delivery systems.

The overriding imperative, however, is that these new services are available, affordable and accessible to absolutely everyone. As a content provider, we must look to others to ensure that the infrastructure and regulation is in place to enable every school and pupil in the country to take their first steps on the learning journey.

Universal access must be guaranteed - we cannot have gatekeepers to knowledge in this new digital world.

Keith Jones taught mathematics for 14 years before joining BBC Wales where he became head of education. He is currently head of programmes (Welsh). He will deliver the BBC Wales Lecture, "Using new technology to raise standards in mathematics" on Friday, July 14 at 9.30am.

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