The Ferrari of rectangles

19th January 2001 at 00:00
DEVELOPING SUBJECT KNOWLEDGE: PRIMARY MATHEMATICS. By Heather Cooke. Paul ChapmanOpen University pound;15.99

PRIMARY MATHEMATICS: KNOWLEDGE AND UNDERSTANDING. By Claire Mooney, Lindsey Ferrie, Sue Fox, Alice Hansen, Reg Wrathmell_ Learning Matters pound;14.99. Tel: 01752 202301.

Is a square a rectangle, or not? If you cannot talk amusingly for five minutes on this, then you need to buy one of these books.

National Numeracy Strategy directorAnita Straker has identified boosting our subject knowledge and confidence in mathematics as a national priority for the coming year. The Strategy's five-day courses do this job well but there will never be enough money for them to reach everyone. Ratio and proportion, for example, are not well understood by children and these two topics are likely to feature more prominently in the key stage 2 SATs over the next few years.

Schools need a good mathematical dictionary on the staffroom shelf, as well as the ones the pupils have available. We also require resources such as the ones reviewed here, which aim to fulfil a reference need and support courses for trainee teachers.

I applied the same tests to both books: would they answer perennial questions such as "What's this I keep hearing about a square being a rectangle?" Readability and clarity are also important. It is no good finding an entry on dynamic geometry if you cannot make head or tail of it when you do. Neither book really distinguishes between graphs and charts, though both have excellent sections o reasoning and mathematical argument, an increasingly hot topic at primary level.

So is a square a rectangle? Afraid so, though only in the sense that a Ferrari is, technically, a car. I do not know any Ferrari owners personally, but I strongly suspect that they never say "Just going to take the car for a service, dear". No normal human being ever refers to a square as a rectangle (or indeed as a quadrilateral, although it is one), because it is more special than either of those.

Both books deal well with this, though rather to my surprise I found the style of the multi-author offering from Mooney et al clearer. Heather Cooke's book often feels more authoritative and perhaps slightly more mathematical. Developed from Open University distance learning materials, it includes self-study questions and tasks. Some readers will prefer this approach - certainly if you work through the book you will have a pretty thorough understanding of the maths involved.

For dipping into as reference occasionally, the Learning Matters offering is easier to use, with its helpful summaries of key points. It too offers a few short questions at the end of each section.

I also very much liked the chatty little snippets, mainly historical, which accompany many of its items. Did you know Pythagoras was burned to death in his house because he was perceived as a secretive and arrogant control freak? I didn't. Let's hope that Downing Street is well supplied with fire extinguishers.

Laurie Rousham is a numeracy consultant in Suffolk

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