Imagination counts

9th January 2004 at 00:00
Tom Deveson reports on a scheme that builds on children's love of a good story to give them a firm understanding of mathematical concepts.

The island is full of magic and mystery. The young heroine Lily has to contend with kings, queens, princes, counsellors and enchantresses as she finds her way through danger to happiness. So far, so enjoyably familiar.

But this island is located in a Year 2 classroom at John Stainer School in Lewisham in south London, and the story unfolds in an unusual manner. Every vital turn in the plot can only be negotiated if the children help solve a mathematical conundrum. Counting, calculation, direction and division are all woven into the richly coloured narrative.

The island is the creation of Trisha Lee and Isla Tompsett of MakeBelieve Arts. Trisha worked with the London Bubble Company and currently teaches theatre-in-education at Goldsmiths College, where Isla was one of her MA students. Neither of them were especially confident about maths as a child.

But having always made stories an essential part of their work, they wanted to use them in less conventional areas of the curriculum.

A fundamental influence on Trisha Lee's thinking and practice is the work of Vivian Gussin Paley, the inspirational American kindergarten teacher. In such books as The Boy Who Would Be A Helicopter and The Kindness of Children, she has demonstrated her belief - founded on years of practical experience - that the classroom is a communal stage upon which children emerge as natural and ingenious storytellers.

The work of the Canadian educator Kieran Egan is also central to what they do, especially his ideas about the power of pairs of binary opposites, embodied within stories and drama, to catch children's imaginations and provide access to a vast range of topics.

Before running the full project, which was funded by the Lewisham Excellence in the City Action Zone, Trisha and Isla ran a pilot with two classes. Feedback from Jo Gormley, a teacher at John Stainer and a leading teacher for maths in Lewisham, Jenni Back of the Primary Mathematics Project based at Cambridge University, and the children themselves, helped to make the programme conceptually tighter and more fun to do.

The full-blown project covered five sessions, each introducing a phase of the story with a particular mathematical focus. On the island, there is vagueness about the exact difference between a little and a lot. It may not mean much in everyday life, but when you have to be able to count the number of soldiers in your army and the army of a potential enemy, precision becomes important. Someone has to devise a way of counting accurately, and it doesn't help if the soldiers keep marching around. A method is discovered - using pebbles and place value - which brings Lily to the fore. She learns how to subtract, but holding all the answers in her head can create new problems. Her fresh discovery is a number line that lets you take away any quantity from any other.

Lily then undertakes the task of selling cloth for her father, a merchant, but finds that using "hands" as the standard for fixing the size of a garment leads to awkward or embarrassing problems. She realises more quickly than the king that it all depends on the size of the hand being used as a measure; fortunately, the king is able to apply the span of his own hand as a "ruler", and the length of his arm as a consistent "metre".

As the story develops, Lily is captured by a sorcerer but finds a way of guiding the prince to rescue her from the maze where she's imprisoned by sending out precise bearings in a message, using the language of distance and direction. Finally, as a wedding gift, Lily and the prince receive shares in the kingdom, and only by a division sum involving fractions can fairness and celebration be ultimately united in the same action.

In the opening session, the children had plenty of opportunities to be listeners, thinkers and participants. The movement towards greater accuracy in counting became the focus of what the children wanted to do. Some were counsellors who proposed different methods; as these were tried out, they were exploring the very basis of "denumerability", the start of a process that may lead them, in years to come, to the work of such revolutionary mathematicians as Cantor and Frege. There was a huge sense of involvement and commitment as the story seamlessly shuttled between narrative and activity. When they devised a method that was accurate, memorable, practical and consistent - using different stones to represent hundreds, tens and units - they had re-enacted the historical development of centuries of civilisation within a busy hour in London.

The final episode allowed for a further recapitulation of earlier themes.

The Enchantress set Lily a number of challenges: making the largest possible number using a limited set of "place value" pebbles, picking out wrong and right answers from an array of subtraction sums, measuring the length of sheets of coloured paper using a strange ruler with the origin of its scale placed halfway along its length. Each of these was constructed in such a way as to elicit the correct answer, but, more important, the challenges stimulated discussion and thought processes, which in turn gave rise to solutions while articulating their rationale.

The division of the kingdom crowned the work with a palpable sense that mathematics and morality may inhabit the same universe. Alex Roberts, the newly qualified teacher whose classroom became the island, was impressed by the way the project brought benefit to all her children. "You could see them learning as a result of doing something as well as talking about it. I will be able to build on what we have achieved together."

Jo Gormley is also very positive: "Because the stories are linked, children recall what they have learned before, and build and reinforce their understanding of concepts. I hope this very enjoyable way of doing maths is made available to others."

Six-year-old Maryam Iqbal loved finding her way blindfold out of the masking-tape labyrinth that symbolised Lily's captivity in the Enchantress's tower, led by a friend's spoken directions. "It was quite scary but the words like quarter-turn and half-turn and left and right got me out OK."

That's what drama and storytelling can do for children - guide them through the complexities of the maze of learning, encouraged by their friends, to places of safety and pleasure. It also allows them to make connections at a deep level between mathematical language and their own experience.

MakeBelieve ArtsTel: 020 8692 8886Email: Information about The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter and other books by Vivian Gussin Paley: www.hup.harvard.educatalogPALBOY.htmlFor more on Kieran Egan's work on education visit: www.educ.sfu.cakegan

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