Furry logic

2nd October 1998 at 01:00
During the 1997 summer break, Channel 4 asked me to help develop a series of key stage 1 maths programmes linked to the National Numeracy Project. I had been working with teachers in Wakefield on interactive whole-class teaching with an emphasis on oral work and mental calculation. A series of television programmes on numeracy promised to be helpful, giving teachers confidence in this way of working and suggesting ideas for classwork.

Eventually, Open Mind Productions made 30 10-minute programmes for five and six-year-olds, to be broadcast during the 1998-1999 academic year. Chris Ellis, who had written the scripts for the science series Fourways Farm, and Susie Nott-Bower, who had worked on the animation for Rat-a-tat-tat literacy programmes, came up with the idea of using animated models to capture the imagination of young viewers.

The Number Crew has 20 eccentric animal passengers on a holiday cruise ship - the good ship Mathematical. In each episode the crew meets a particular maths problem. A presenter in the studio invites viewers to identify the problem and help solve it. Putting children into the role of "the expert" like this gives them confidence in their own mathematical ability and encourages them to talk about and consider possible solutions to problems. It involves children actively in their own learning.

The prospect of appearing in a studio scene with a presenter who was to have "larger-than-life" maths resources including outsize furry numbers and an enormous number line with a fabulous car opened up a new world to this chalkface maths teacher. A link with the "real world" uses film clips showing numbers in the environment. Computer animation makes memorable images of the mathematics being considered. As a teacher, how often have I felt the need for such resources?

The series had to reflect today's shift towards teacher demonstration and instruction. The emphasis had to be on whole-class oral work and mental methods of computation, even for very young children, helping them see patterns and relationships between numbers. Each programme was planned as a starting point for teachers to meet needs of all abilities. We decided on three sets of programmes reflecting three key areas of the curriculum - numbers and the number system; calculations; and making sense of problems.

If teachers, as hoped, view the tapes before sharing them with the children, they can use the programmes and supporting notes to plan a balanced scheme of work for the year. Having the three strands on separate tapes will ease access - programmes can be used in any order, to make connections between concepts and relationships.

I met with the Open Mind team regularly to analyse and amend scripts, which sometimes went to three or four versions. I realised I had a lot to learn. The production team could bring a script to life and visualise it as it would appear on screen. I also learned much about timing. At one meeting Susie Nott-Bower said she had timed the script and "it was five seconds out". How could anyone time a script with such precision - and what can you do in five seconds anyway?

The maths adviser - me - was on a steep learning curve, finding out about "blue-screen work" and storyboards. By Christmas, I had my first glimpse of puppets Bradley, Fiz and Flo. The puppet children were much as I had imagined, but animals Ted and Mirabelle were a surprise. The figures had bags of character. I marvelled at the skill of the animators and the immense patience and dedication of the whole team.

Matthew Lyon was selected as presenter in the New Year and recorded several of the number songs Chris had written. I took the tape into school to find the reaction of some six-year-olds. They started humming snatches. So did their teachers.

It seemed the children would be able to learn some number facts set to music. In March and April we spent much time discussing the language in the programmes and deciding what mathematical vocabulary to introduce. We were helped by the Mathematical Vocabulary book published by the Numeracy Project, but we still argued about how many of the words we should try to use. Usually I insisted on correct mathematical terms, as young children can understand them. But when we started talking about problems of "mass", I agreed that children also needed to know about "weight" as that would be the usual term heard outside school.

Chris coped with the problem brilliantly by introducing the "mass" of the "massive" elephant, then continuing to link the work with "weight".

In one episode, the animals become sea-sick and are given pills to help them recover. Having Mirabelle prescribe the precise number of pills for each animal emphasised the point of taking medication only under supervision. We were covering more than maths education.

As the scripts continued, so the characters developed. The animals developed personalities and made particular friends. By May we saw the "rushes" of early programmes. By the end of June, there were finished versions. The 3D animation is a delight. Children and teachers will love Matthew: the maths is like breathing to him. A fantasy of numbers and number lines lights up the studio. Two-dimensional animations and "Living Numbers" caper about. It is such fun.

What a wonderful way to teach maths. What a wonderful way to learn maths.

'The Number Crew' will be broadcast on Tuesdays 10-10.10am, repeated Thursdays 11-11.10am from September 22 to December 3. Night-time 4-5.40am on December 2. Spring and summer transmission times in the annual programme.More details from: Channel 4 Learning, Castle House, 75-76 Wells St, London W1P 3RE

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