Magic by numbers

20th June 2003 at 01:00
Elaine Williams finds out how tricky problems can be conjured into pure fun.

Many of us have hang-ups about numbers. Faced with a maths problem, we would love the answer to appear by magic. Yet magic itself is a form of number-crunching, with many mathematical patterns at its core.

Pupils and parents at St John's Church of England Primary School, Bradford, expected numbers to be pulled out of a hat at a recent maths-and-magic show. Instead they found themselves involved in their own problem-solving to unlock magical secrets.

More than 100 of the school's parents joined their children to enjoy the conjuring of magician Peter Smales. But this was a two-way process. He played conventional magic tricks - such as transforming three pieces of rope of different lengths into three pieces of the same length - and he also called on his audience to work out how he came by some of the answers, involving processes that looked suspiciously like numeracy tasks in key stages 1 and 2.

An accountant and a member of the Hull magic circle, Peter Smales has developed a magic show that brings out the fun element of primary school numeracy and is becoming increasingly popular with schools in the region.

He said: "Most people are interested in magic, but unlocking the secrets of magic is about unravelling mathematical patterns. In this context, most children find this kind of problem-solving a lot of fun."

The magician, who has long entertained in clubs, was encouraged by his daughter Nicky, a primary school teacher, to take his magic into schools to add a bit of fizz to the numeracy hour. He took up her suggestion with enthusiasm. His aim, he says, is to "reinforce what teachers do" but to provide a fun element, much of which teachers themselves can develop in class.

At St John's, parents and their children - juniors in the morning, infants in the afternoon - certainly welcomed the opportunity to share maths problems. After Peter Smales's magic show, parents and pupils spent the rest of each session moving around a problem-solving fair, with activity stalls set up around the school hall involving ropes and dice and paper circles. The event was only one of many activities and projects involving parents at St John's (see opposite).

Sandra Foxcroft, a parent governor, said: "This is a really fun way for parents to spend time with their children in school. People are very confident about helping their children with reading, but they are frightened about maths. Doing something like this builds up confidence."

Paul Ford, an electrician, said he had always played maths games at home with his daughter Joanna, eight, because they both enjoy the subject. The magic show, he said, had provided reassurance that he was on the right track.

Gloria Gott, St John's headteacher, said: "We have tried to engage parents in maths curriculum activities in the past and they have been very nervous.

I think this fun approach has given them confidence."

David Barlow from Bradford College runs basic skills courses for parents at St John's; he was making a booklet for parents with some of the mathematical terminology used at KS2 that they might not be familiar with.

He said: "Parents find KS2 maths particularly threatening. Anything which offers an explanation and makes tasks enjoyable has got to be a plus."


A calculator exercise Think of a secret number between 1 and 9 Multiply it by 11 Then multiply it by 37 Then 13 Then 3 Then 7 (The number 7 would produce the answer 777777, 8 would give 888888 etc) Dice game Take two or three dice and stack them on top of each other. Pupils have to add up the numbers on the threefive sides which can't be seen, write the total on a piece of paper and hide it.

The teachermagician will be able to tell them the hidden total.

The secret: opposite sides of the dice add up to seven. The magician will see the number that's face up on the top dice, and take that number away from 14. With three dice, the magician subtracts the number from 21.

From Why Do Buses Come in Threes? by Rob Eastaway and Jeremy Wyndham, Robson Books pound;8.99

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