Path to motivation

10th January 2003 at 00:00
Working with an eminent mathematician to create an impressive resource proved a dynamic experience for teachers and pupils at a Fareham school. John Dabell reports

The maths department at Henry Cort Community School in Fareham has a physical resource at its disposal that is guaranteed to ignite and cultivate children's interest in maths for years to come: a labyrinth.

The labyrinth was designed and built by children and teachers and takes pride of place in the school grounds. The mathematical trigger to create a labyrinth began with a link to Cambridge University's Motivate programme - a real-time video-conferencing project for schools. The programme allowed children of Henry Cort and schools from Leeds, London and Newcastle, to interact with eminent mathematician Chris Budd, who is professor of applied mathematics at the University of Bath.

Professor Budd talked to the children about mazes and labyrinths and then set them off on a project to design and build their own labyrinth. The one at Henry Cort is a classical seven-circuit design based on the Cretan story of Theseus and the Minotaur. Ariadne gave Theseus a magical ball of yarn that guided him through the darkness of the labyrinth to Minotaur's lair. After his victory, he escaped by rewinding the golden thread to where she waited anxiously at the entrance.

The yarn was completely unnecessary, however, and here lies the important distinction between a labyrinth and a maze. A labyrinth is unicursal, a maze multicursal. A labyrinth is a series of carefully connected concentric circles consisting of a single meandering pathway which leads inexorably from the entrance to the centre. A puzzle maze consists of false pathways and dead ends to confuse those who follow its winding course. A labyrinth is easy to navigate as there are no choices to make because there is only one path to follow.

A maze on the other hand, is far more difficult to move around because the user is confronted with constant choices about which path to take. If only Theseus had been aware of the difference, he would have avoided all sorts of trouble. A labyrinth is known as a right-brain puzzle and a maze as a left-brain activity enhancer.

The children at Henry Cort designed their labyrinth using a computer and The Geometer Sketchpad, which allowed them to construct circles. For their classical design they began with a seed pattern - the basic building block. Children communicated their ideas and designs using a PowerPoint presentation via videoconference. They used their design to mark out and build a turf labyrinth - the type once found throughout Europe. Other kinds of labyrinth include stick, mown hay and stone.

Children and staff formed the labyrinth by cutting and building turf ridges and digging shallow trenches, which were filled with gravel (donated by the local garden centre). These marked a single pathway to a centre.

The practicalities in digging the site proved to be a valuable exercise for teachers and children. Although physical in nature, the dig challenged everyone to think about the process as a whole. The labyrinth is 15 metres across and the length of the path, from the mouth to the goal, is 150m. The outcome has been a huge success, developing a real sense of ownership among children.

Professor Budd officially opened the labyrinth a few weeks later and since the opening children have been able to email him. The Motivate project clearly brought maths to life and got everyone excited at Henry Cort. Thirteen-year-old Jon Hill said that the labyrinth was "a fun way to do maths and not like normal maths."' Ellie Price, also aged 13, agreed, saying it was "enjoyable and different from other maths lessons."

Head of maths, Fiona Fulton, found "videoconferencing improved children's mathematical communication and developed their confidence and presentation skills."

The Motivate programme has given children the opportunity to work in the same way as professional mathematicians and this has stretched them intellectually.

Creating the labyrinth has involved children in the use of practical maths skills, such as calculating the circumference of a circle, loci work, algebra, and estimation. It is also an impressive cross-curricular tool as it can tell a story, depict a moment in history, pose mental and physical challenges and provide a quality setting for social interaction, communication and cooperation. It is a multi-functional resource that can be enjoyed by the whole school.

From a practical point of view a labyrinth is safe, long-lasting, requires little maintenance and is easy to supervise. It is also an aesthetically-pleasing feature of the school environment.

The maths department at Henry Cort is an excellent example of what interactive and practical education can achieve. The excitement of maths has to be inspired and children rely on their teachers to find ways of making this happen. In the right hands, maths is a vigorous and dynamic subject.

To get involved in the Motivate video-conferencing programme contact Jenny Gage Email:

Ashland WWWeb Services has links to sites about labyrinths

For further details and examples of labyrinths visit Adrian Fisher Maze Design

For impressive examples of labyrinths in England, Germany and France

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