Fun help online
Teachers and parents of a certain age will fondly recall Johnny Ball, whose inventive television programmes like Think of a Number made maths approachable and intriguing. The same spirit of serious fun is found in Maths-Whizz, a personal online maths-tutor programme warmly endorsed by Ball. It has grown out of the Maths-Whizz interactive CDs, familiar to many primary schools, and is available through subscription. Progress through the scheme evolves in response to the child's performance as their understanding grows. While a daily lesson lasts about 45 minutes, participants can access more than 1,000 hours of activities from their virtual "bedroom".
A typical lesson begins with the computer taking on the role of teacher, explaining a principle, then demonstrating it through a sequence of animations. This is followed by exercises for the child in which the principle is applied. For example, we see how the number of ants falling into a hole can be represented by a line graph beside the hole, and then we have to estimate quantities of ants ourselves. Or we see how co-ordinates are expressed as numbers within columns and rows before helping a rabbit to find a specific seat in a cinema using the same method.
There are various incentives for getting the answers right. A burping anteater comes along and enjoys a gourmet meal or a comedy cat enters the cinema and scares the audience. More seriously, points are accumulated and can be exchanged for games and other cheerful stuff for the player's "bedroom". Wrong answers elicit help in the form of flashing cursors and animated reminders about the central mathematical idea. There's a useful illustrated dictionary, and conventional test questions - rather reminiscent of Sats - pop up at the end of a session.
Responses to test questions and interactive exercises are continuously assessed. Children and parents can ask for regular reports on progress, with suggestions about areas for improvement, and share revision facilities. They can look at different topics within the national curriculum and seek out activities appropriate for different levels of ability.
Maths-Whizz is not cheap, but the promoters have a point in comparing the cost favourably with that of employing a recent maths graduate or a moonlighting primary teacher. And with Maths-Whizz, you get flatulent anteaters and film-loving rabbits as well.