Prime time cometh;Numeracy

14th May 1999 at 01:00
Spending an hour a day on maths is helped greatly by incorporating technology into your teaching. And, as Chris Johnston reports, it is not as daunting as you might think

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the classroom, along comes another initiative. Just as teachers have got to grips with the Literacy Strategy and integrated the literacy hour into their working day, along comes the National Numeracy Strategy.

Like literacy, it has ambitious aims - to ensure than 75 per cent of 11-year-olds will reach the standard of mathematics expected for their age by 2002. A daily maths hour is a vital element, but for Years 1 to 4, it will only be 40 minutes, rising to 50 minutes for Years 5 and 6.

There were hopes that the Numeracy Strategy, which comes into effect in September, would do a better job of incorporating information and communications technology into its teaching framework. ICT at least makes an appearance in the introduction, Framework for Teaching; the same cannot be said of the literacy document.

It states that better numeracy standards occur when teachers: "use and give pupils access to number lines and other resources, including ICT, to model mathematical ideas and methods", and "devote a high proportion of lesson time to direct teaching of whole classes and groups, making judicious use of textbooks, worksheets and ICT resources to support teaching, not to replace it".

The strategy, like its literacy counterpart, was hamstrung by classroom resources. Anita Straker, director of the Numeracy Strategy, admits this issue is a limitation. Most schools are lucky to have one computer per classroom: "We have to be pragmatic about the resources schools have and find ways of using what they've got productively," she says.

Nevertheless, the way computers have traditionally been used in maths teaching - sending three children off to use a computer while the other pupils get on with a lesson, for example - has to change. "This is not part of the ethos of the National Numeracy Strategy with its greater emphasis on whole-class teaching," Straker says. "We would like to see more use of computers in classrooms with whole classes or quarter-classes, depending on whether or not they have a large enough screen."

Large screens or projectors are the ideal, but she realises hopes for getting these into every classroom are "pie in the sky". For this reason, she suggests schools consider putting all their computers in one room, then allocating sessions to class groups.

Ensuring there is enough equipment, sufficient good-quality software and proper training for teachers is very important. However, Anita Straker notes: "One is always ahead or behind and we never seem to have all three together at the same time."

There is a lack of suitable programs. To remedy this, Anita Straker's team is developing new software. These can be used with a whole class or smaller groups, with the teacher playing an active role for at least part of the time. "We could achieve quite good use of ICT in mathematics through these types of methods," she says.

Those responsible for the numeracy strategy encountered the same problems as their literacy colleagues over mentioning specific software titles, which, Anita Straker says, caused difficulties. Developing pupils' ability to use software and other ICT skills is not the purpose of the "daily maths lesson", she says. "The primary goal is to get them learning mathematics, and if ICT will enhance that learning it's absolutely great, but there are other ways of doing it."

Marjorie Gorman, a retired advisory teacher and now a maths consultant, believes there is a strong case for using ICT in numeracy because some programs can help children better understand mathematical concepts. She echoes Straker's concern about finding suitable software, but adds: "I think teachers are realising that if they can get a good program, it is worth investing in. Many are critical of 'flashy' programs where the learning is not very demanding."

One program Marjorie Gorman believes many teachers will be interested in is Developing Number, a product ofthe Association for Teachers of Mathematics. It comprises three discs: Numbers, Compliments and Tables. It attracted interest from the Numeracy Strategy team because it can be used with the whole class or individually. The difficulty of exercises can be varied, making it suitable for both primary and secondary schools. Lessons where teachers are using one of the programs are included in the numeracy strategy teacher training videos.

Chris Thatcher, head of Potter's Green primary in Coventry and vice-president of the National Association of Head Teachers, says ICT lends itself well to learning numeracy because it motivates children. The strategy is not designed for ICT. Given the resources many schools have, its targets could be more readily achieved through other means.

"If every child had access to the right ICT equipment as and when they needed it, then there's a lot more that could be done, but we're a million miles from that," Chris Thatcher comments. "We're still talking about every school having a computer with Internet access, rather than one for every classroom, and rather than one for every youngster."

ICT in numeracy also includes devices such as calculators and floor robots and turtles. Teachers who have used products such as the Roamer do not need to be told how useful they can be for teaching programming. They also have the advantage of easy use with a whole class.

With the official start of the numeracy strategy still four months away, predicting how successful and well-received it will be is difficult. It will involve spending time on training, as well as preparing for the daily session. As teachers already struggle with an onerous workload, many will welcome yet another strategy as much as giving Chris Woodhead another five-year contract.

Time is a crucial factor when it comes to incorporating ICTinto lessons. If teachers are under pressure, there will not be time to consider how to use technology in their classes. Although it does give more attention to ICT than the literacy strategy, the numeracy strategy does not go as far as it could have.

However, this situation is a reflection of the resources that schools have. As Chris Thatcher, points out, teachers cannot be expected to use equipment they do not have. The Government is trying to get more computers into schools through the National Grid for Learning, but there is a case for ensuring -as Anita Straker advocates - a better balance between hardware, software and teacher training. The numeracy and literacy capabilities of future generations could depend on getting it right.

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