Mix in some maths

12th November 2004 at 00:00
Websites make it simple to contribute to numeracy, says Becky Hewlitt

1066, 1918, 1939.... History is in some ways obsessed with numbers. Even so, mention of the word "numeracy" strikes fear into the heart of many a maths-phobic historian. Improving standards of numeracy is an integral part of the national strategy for key stage 3 and although it may seem more relvant in some subjects than others, all teachers are expected to play a part. The priorities are to improve calculations and graphical work, to use charts and diagrams and to improve reasoning and problem solving - all skills that can easily be incorporated into history lessons.

The old adage "lies, damned lies and statistics" rings true throughout the studies of the historian. Numbers can be manipulated to reflect anything you like and questioning statistics is an extension of source analysis skills. An interesting starter activity is one I use to introduce our studies of the Holocaust.

I project a fictitious graph that purports to show that pupils with blue eyes perform badly at GCSE. I then put a list of fake statistics on the board that denigrates blue-eyed people. The results are thought-provoking.

Pupils with brown eyes often turn on their blue-eyed friends and mock them while crowing about their own superiority. Blue-eyed pupils either deny their eye colour ("They're more green!"), accept the judgment ("I always knew I was thick!") or get quite upset. Very few question the source of the statistics. This throws up a number of interesting points - "Why are statistics believed without question?" And also "Why did I react the way I did when I was told it was 'proved' I was inferior or superior to someone?"

One of the most exciting and enjoyable ways my classes have tackled numeracy is through work that covers the Wall Street Crash. We begin by reflecting on our own financial management - are we spenders or hoarders? We discuss savings and investment. I then hand out a copy of the share prices from that day's paper and pupils pick a share to follow - will they choose one from a well-known company or gamble on an unknown? Will they pick a cheap or an expensive one?

In the next lesson we see how each pupil's investment has done - did anyone's investment pay? Who made and who lost? This activity gives them a better understanding of what the stock market is and how you can make or lose money with shares. We then begin to look at the Wall Street Crash using a superb interactive activity from www.activehistory.co.uk

Pupils choose whether to buy or sell shares or put their money in the bank as part of a re-enactment of the period. They record their decisions on the worksheet provided. As they record their gains and losses and keep an eye on interest rates there is a sense of excitement and competition over who can amass the biggest fortune.

The twist is that they eventually lose all their money whatever they do.

These lessons cover numeracy but in a way that includes empathy. It shows pupils that maths and finance are not just dry lists of figures but can really have an impact on lives and a nation's fortunes.

The internet is enormously useful for numeracy, especially as a source of statistics. These are some of the best sites I have found: www.learningcurve.pro.gov.uk The Public Records Office contains superb online lessons using primary sources. The best to tackle numeracy are:

* The Domesday Book - this gives a selection of pages from the original and asks pupils to work out the size of villages using medieval measurements of land.

* The Trimdon Grange Mining Disaster - pupils work out the percentage of fatalities using the burial registers.

* School Dinners - requires children to look at a graph of children's growth and assess how school dinners helped the nation's health.

* The Titanic - a list of passenger deaths and activities using data and statistics about the ship.

Lessons are self-contained and take about an hour. They come with lots of activities and are suitable for KS34.


From the excellent School History site, this downloadable Word document links to a site containing statistics about the First World War. The pupils are asked to produce graphs and work out the cost of the war in terms of money and life.


The 1901 census. Pupils can research their family's past and plot the class results on bar charts and graphs.


The Commonwealth War Graves Commission. A similar lesson would be to plot where ancestors fought, average age of death etc. The CWGC has also started a new section for schools, Remember Me, at www.cwgc.orgeducation www.bbc.co.ukhistorytimelines Timelines that can be used to explore concepts such as BC and AD. Pupils can improve their numeracy through working out how many years ago certain periods are and discussing the differences between centuries, millenniums etc.

www-groups.dcs.st-andrews.ac.uk%7Ehistory Great site covering the history of maths. Provides a mathematician of the day for each day of the year, printable posters of great mathematicians from history and a database of female mathematicians.

www.vhfcn.orgstat.html Statistics about the Vietnam war. The author gives commonly believed myths from the war and then presents statistics to dismiss them (for example, 97 per cent of Vietnam veterans are glad they served). An interesting debate for gifted pupils would be "How reliable are these statistics and how can historians manipulate statistics for their own ends?"

Becky Hewlitt teaches history at Perryfields High School, Oldbury, West Midlands

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