Maths and science don't have to be misery

12th November 2004 at 00:00
Science and maths are remarkably divisive subjects. On one side are the enthusiasts, people who are awestruck by a natural world which is rule driven yet has literally infinite possibilities. And on the other are those who see only a misery of hard sums and formulae.

Sadly, among the second group are an awful lot of teachers.

Science and maths educator Mark Biddiss says: "One of the reasons I like working with teachers is that, especially in primary schools, they're not as confident with science and maths as they would like to be."

Dr Biddiss's answer to that, which works with both children and teachers, is to find the fun factor. His website features files of intriguing experiments in maths and science, with bursts of flame and smoke, laughter, shrieks of delight and a sense of wonder that this is a way of learning.

All the time, though, there is a strong pedagogic philosophy. What Dr Biddiss is keen to promote is not so much knowledge as process, a problem-solving approach to maths and science.

Like many evangelical educators, Dr Biddiss did not do all that well at school himself, leaving the London Nautical School with only average O levels. After school he worked as a hospital operating theatre technician and then as a technician engineer in the gas industry. Only then, when he could see science and maths in action, did he become inspired.

"Engineering is heavily physics and maths," he says. "I started to read the New Scientist for pleasure as well as for work and I became an avid watcher of science and nature programmes."

He began taking evening classes in physics and maths and it was this that inspired him to study for a degree, followed by a PhD, with a view to becoming a teacher.

"In the last few months of my studies I came up with the idea of starting a company, where we'd go to schools doing science workshops with children.

"At the same time I met Dr Jasmine Pradissitto. She joined me, and we started in January 1997. After about two years we added maths shows and workshops."

The driving purpose was to make maths and science accessible and exciting.

"We wanted to come up with lots of ideas which would motivate or inspire children."

He gives a variety of presentations: sometimes they are shows to an audience of up to 200, sometimes workshops in a classroom.

There is a clear message in his work: if you take pressure off children and give them confidence to try things, then they will start to achieve. In workshops, he sets out various activities and has children trying each in turn. "In our experience, children can perform well when they know they're not going to be assessed or criticised. That's the way we work," he says.

He tells of some 7-year-old children who became interested in one of his number puzzles - a "think of a number ..." calculation where the answer is the starting point - and went on to explore the algebraic principles behind it with their teacher.

"I wouldn't have thought of doing algebra with that age group, but this class coped with it and they weren't exceptional."

What Dr Biddiss is interested in are things that raise questions: an explosion in a film canister, a soap bubble, a cardboard boat that scoots across the water for no obvious reason, a card trick. Always, the first question is: "What do you think might be going on?"

"Our style of education is too geared to facts and figures and certainty," he says. "The reality is that much of science isn't certain."

He is proud of the fact that all of his teacher training sessions are based on work he has done with children. "Everything we show to teachers has been done with children at every level, including special needs," he says.

"When we work with children we need to get them interested and so we show lots of ideas quickly. With teachers we can show them how to take these ideas much further." Biddiss will take science workshops on Nov 19, 3pm, and Nov 20, 10.30am, and maths workshops on Nov 19, noon and Nov 20, 1.30pm


* Ask children to speculate what might be going on.

* Encourage children to predict - but not to guess - outcomes from what is already known. "Learning to think is the key. Teach your children how to think and solve problems," say Dr Biddiss.

* The presentation of an activity is as important as the activity itself.

Be clear, confident and entertaining.

* A lesson is not automatically more interesting because there is an activity: some activities are dull.

* Be confident about your own uncertainty. Feel free to say: "I don't know.

Let's try it and see what happens." Dr Biddiss says: "I've noticed that children are significantly more interested when they think you don't know."

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