Let the good times roll;Numeracy

24th September 1999 at 01:00
The maths hour can be user-friendly. Ted Wragg gives a 10-point plan for success

Seven eights? Fifty-six. Eight fives? Forty. Six nines? Fifty-four. I love it. Ever since we had a junior schoolteacher who quizzed us on our sums, calling out "got you there" if anyone made an error, I have been like Quick Draw McGraw.

None of your 10 times 10 limit in our day. We pounds-shillings-and-pence tough guys had to learn multiplication facts up to 12 times 12, as those duodecimal teasers would be called nowadays. And we could spell every word in the dictionary. And we never misbehaved. And we knew every cape and bay from Scarborough to Hong Kong. AndI Oops! I feel an attack of False Nostalgia Syndrome coming on.

The "numeracy hour" was presented in the press as a return to a glorious past, with endless pages of sums and children chanting figures many did not understand. If that were so, it would expire at birth, for these approaches failed miserably to inspire this generation's grandparents. If the numeracy strategy is to work it will have to be dynamic and engaging, rather than passive and alienating.

So how can it be introduced smoothly, so it's user-friendly for teachers and pupils? I offer this 10-point plan to reduce headaches.

1 Minimise the bureaucracy

Teachers have been living in a high accountability but low-trust world, ticking endless boxes to show a suspicious society they are not being naughty. Paper has become a substitute for the job, so schools sometimes introduce more form-filling than is necessary. Good management minimises bureaucracy.

2 Maximise the imagination

The Department for Education and Employment numeracy folder has hundreds of pages of good advice, but no one can teach holding a fat file in one hand. Get the gist of it and then improvise round it, so it becomes yours and not someone else's lessons.

3 Don't mechanise it

People, after a while, made the literacy hour work better because they did not stick to a rigid 15-15-20-10-minute split. The numeracy strategy could also be interpreted in an unbending way so every day is exactly the same in structure. But children need teachers, not daleks, ("Ten minutes up, ten minutes up. Ex-ter-minate. Ex-ter-minate").

4 Introduce vocabularynaturally

All primary schools have received a very handy DfEE mathematical vocabulary book, full of words and phrases children should know. They must learn terms such as "interrogate data" ("All right data, where were you on the night of the 14th, and look into the light when you reply"). Don't teach vocabulary out of context, it would be comical and frustrating:

"parallel", "perpendicular" - learn them through use, "right angle", "acute angle" - don't be "obtuse".

5 Make number work fun

We Brits are rotten at "number", which is why we come bottom of international league tables (we do quite well in geometry and data handling but not many people know that). Don't try to overcome our national deficiency with hours of tedious and repetitive practice. Oral exchanges, for example, can be great fun if done with humour: "412 divided by two - and anyone who thinks the answer is 26 will have to scrub the classroom floor for a month", should qualify for a performance-related pay award for reducing the cleaning budget.

6 Don't return to "drills amp; frills"

Back in the old days the school day was sometimes known for its drills in the mornings, and "frills" in the afternoons. Pupils often hated the dreary mornings and loved the more interesting afternoons. Don't turn the clock back to 1969.

7 Involve the children

The imposition of literacy and numeracy periods, prescribed externally, could alienate children if they feel there is nothing in it for them, just yet another example of grown-ups telling them what to do all the time. Let children in on the trade secrets. Show them the specifications. Ask them for their own ideas about how it's going and how to implement topics and activities. ("Why not scrap it miss?" "ErI") 8 Keep parents informed

Run a mini-session for parents lasting about half the time children normally have (about five minutes oral work, 15-20 minutes activity, five minutes plenary). Let them do the same work as their children, with time for questions. "Miss, I'm stuck". "Ah, I see now where your Marmaduke gets his genes from."

9 Evaluate as you go

Take stock early in the year, so problems do not escalate. Share ideas and problems. "I tackle pints before litres." "Do you? I do it the other way round. I prefer the Chardonnay with dinner and the lager afterwards."

10 Don't be afraid of B.O.

Are you anxious that inspectors might pillory you for using your judgment about what will work best for your children? Good inspectors recognise that imaginative interpretation of guidelines is a basic professional skill. If they don't, then remember yet another snappy acronym - B.O. (bugger OFSTED).

Ted Wragg is professor of education at Exeter University

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