In praise of the Fibonacci method

17th June 2011 at 01:00
English schools are taking part in a Europe-wide trial of a practical, inquiry-based method of teaching science and maths, as Dorothy Lepkowska reports.

The gliders are no more than two circles of coloured paper loosely attached with paper clips to either end of a stick. But for the purposes of this lesson, they may as well be the most sophisticated aircraft ever invented.

Today's task for this mixed age class of Years 3 and 4 pupils at Cossington CofE Primary in Leicestershire is to find out how subtle changes in design may affect the distance of flight.

Matthew Law, their class teacher, has divided the pupils into groups of three, each of whom has a specific responsibility. One pupil is the thrower, another measures the distance of travel and the third is the "laptop engineer", who inputs the data for analysis.

The pupils adjust the space between the wings - the paper loops - to find out which permutation of wing span carries the glider over the longest distance. After several throws, patterns begin to emerge as the readings are converted into graphs on the pupils' laptops by a data-logging system.

The lesson is based on the Fibonacci method, which brings together the teaching of maths and science through inquiry-based, practical approaches designed to engage and motivate children. Mr Law is one of 25 primary and secondary teachers from 12 schools being trained by Leicester University in the use of this EU-funded project. In total, there are 36 partners in 21 European countries involved in the programme.

"The pupils love this style of learning because it is practical and it demands them to be inquisitive," he says. "The science is in the investigative aspect of the experiment, moving the wings up and down the stick and trying out which position makes the glider fly the furthest. The maths is in the analysis and in measuring distances of travel and in the wing span. The pupils absolutely love the fact they have data to record and analyse."

The method certainly engages the pupils. After a briefing on today's planned activity and a recap on an earlier session, the class moves to the school hall where mats, or "zones", have been laid out on the floor to mark the flight path and help pupils to measure the distance flown by the gliders.

After 10 minutes or so of testing, the pupils gather round Mr Law for an interim review of their findings and to consider what more they need to do to make their results meaningful. One group, for example, attempted only a single flight with the wings situated close together and this has skewed their overall results. They are sent back to do some more tests.

Ella Branston, aged eight, is collecting the data for her group. She says: "I like doing these experiments because I like being the laptop engineer and inputting the information. I like to see the patterns that emerge on the graphs, which is the information we really need."

Her team-mate Ellie Faulconbridge, also eight, wondered whether the glider would fly better if one or both of the wings was turned upside down. The group discussed this possibility before trying it out. It didn't seem to make much difference.

Ellie, who was the thrower in the group, says: "I have never been on an aeroplane before so learning about flying is really interesting for me. One of the things I realised was that the level of force I used in throwing the glider had a lot to do with how far it went.

"Doing experiments really helps you to remember things and makes it stick in your mind."

Leicester University was chosen as the UK hub for the scheme because of its success and work on previous schemes, notably the Pollen Project, a community-led project to promote science teaching in schools across Europe. As an international centre for Fibonacci, the university hosts conferences and training sessions for teachers, including the next major conference of the project, which will have a focus on research, and is scheduled to take place in April 2012.

Professor Janet Ainley, director of Leicester University's school of education and one of the academics spearheading the project, said it had two main objectives: to raise standards in maths and science by improving the professional development of teachers, and to raise the profile of, and interest in, the two subjects that are in decline but are considered worldwide as key to economic growth and success.

"The project is about teaching maths and science using inquiry-based approaches," Professor Ainley says. "Each centre has funding to work with groups of teachers to develop these, and that knowledge is then cascaded down the structure to other teachers.

"We work with teachers to look at how themes arising in the science curriculum can be developed in a cross-curricular way. It is based on teachers and pupils posing and exploring questions through investigation and practical approaches.

"Children use all sorts of scientific processes. It is real science and very hands-on and relevant."

Teachers attend five sessions during the school year - two full days and three twilight sessions - where they take part in activities designed to give them ideas they can try out in the classroom, and customise their lessons for different age groups. Participants get to meet each other and discuss the different approaches they have taken; which have worked in the classroom and which have proved more challenging.

The teachers are supported by academics in the science and maths departments at Leicester University, who visit them and observe their lessons, and then report back on pupil progress and the effectiveness of the teaching.

For the purposes of the project, the university is twinned with universities in Dublin and Belfast - an arrangement that allows centres to disseminate information and learn from each other.

"In particular, Fibonacci challenges us to explore the similarities and differences in our two disciplines: what inquiry might mean in each of them and how the strands of content from each area might be brought together in a meaningful way," Professor Ainley said.

Teachers taking part in the project said it was already reaping benefits in the classroom, with both pupils and staff feeling engaged and motivated in lessons.

At Sandfield Close Primary in Leicester, Sarah Eames, another Fibonacci teacher, organised her school's Science Week which, this year, highlighted the links between numeracy and science, and collaborative working to engage the pupils in activities that have a purpose and scientific outcome.

"The Fibonacci project is fantastic. It has really made me think carefully about the skills I am trying to develop while setting up practical activities and getting children to identify and solve a problem," she says.

"We need to equip children with the confidence and skills to be able to do these subjects, and ensuring that they are able to achieve. They also need to learn that science does not always work first time and you may have to alter your experiment again and again.

"The Fibonacci project links lots of things together. As a teacher, it provides me with confidence, inspiring CPD and the chance to discuss science and numeracy teaching with teachers in different schools and across different age ranges."

The activities-based approach allows all the children in Mr Laws' mixed- age group in this small village primary to participate equally. The Fibonacci method enables him to differentiate tasks for more able children to push them further, as the pupils work in groups.

"One of the main benefits of the Fibonacci method is the integrated use of ICT," he says. "It is a great tool for learning, with the biggest impact being in the use of data and analysis. This develops the children's critical thinking skills and gives them the confidence to challenge and ask questions. It also encourages collaboration and teamwork, and gives individuals responsibility within their group. People have to rely on their team mates fulfilling their role correctly.

"The maths curriculum contains a lot of data handling and using this method means you can cover that through science investigation. Children at this age can find it quite difficult to think of investigative questions but, using this method, we have found that their critical thinking is much improved by the time they are in Years 5 and 6.

"I try to group them by ability for experiments such as these so that I can push them. There is a natural progression in some of these activities so you can stretch the more able a bit further as they go along."

The success of the scheme at Cossington has resulted in the school hosting visits from teachers from around Europe to see first-hand how Fibonacci works in practice. Ruth Muldoon, Cossington's chair of governors, says: "The visitors are always amazed at the motivation and enthusiasm of the pupils and their ability to use IT in an integrated way. When Leicester University approached schools to take part in this project, we were just lucky to have forward-thinking teachers such as Matthew, who was willing to try it."

For the pupils, the Fibonacci method represents a new, fun way of learning. "I think these lessons are fantastic because we have to carry out experiments to see how things work," says Josh Wilkins, aged eight. "Today I learnt that the glider will fly differently depending on which angle it is thrown at and how hard. It makes a real difference to lessons learning like this because we do not forget it. The fact we are doing things all the time is fun and it helps us to remember."


- Pupils engage with the problem - What can I try? What do I already know?

- Plan and design an investigation - What is my question or problem? How will I find out what I want to know?

- Implement - Am I using the right tools? What do I need to record?

- Organise and analyse data - How do I organise the data? What patterns do I see? What relationships might there be?

- Draw tentative conclusions - What claims can I make? What evidence do we have to support our ideas?

- Formulate new questions - What new questions do I have? How do I find out?

- Draw conclusions - What do we know now?

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