Puzzles and teasers add up to good fun

17th June 2005 at 01:00
Glasgow's first primary maths challenge is on the same track as its successful secondary contest, to the delight of one famous former maths teacher, writes Katrina Tweedie

Sporting bright yellow caps, 120 primary pupils kept their heads down, focusing on the adding, subtracting and problem solving facing them, against the clock.

It was the first Glasgow Primary Schools Maths Challenge, which it is hoped will become a nationwide event as other authorities launch their own competitions.

The maths challenges - the secondary schools one was held on Tuesday, a week after the primaries' - are designed to foster a love of maths and show that it can be stimulating and fun.

Feedback from teachers and competing pupils - who were evenly split between boys and girls - suggested the primary competition was a huge success.

Jack McConnell, the First Minister and a former maths teacher himself, awarded the first prize to Notre Dame Primary.

He said he hoped the challenge, held at the Jordanhill Campus, would foster a more competitive spirit between schools.

"I'm all in favour of competition," he said. "Unless we find a way of encouraging as many kids as possible to take part, and also encourage them to strive to better their performance, then we are never going to move forward.

"We need to get maximum access and participation in the competition and I want to encourage other authorities in Scotland to do the same thing. This would be a fantastic challenge in different parts of Scotland and would make a big difference to interest in secondary maths and, hopefully, help to create the next generation of mathematicians and scientists that Scotland badly needs."

Glasgow had organised a great secondary competition for many years, he said, and it was good to see it spreading to primary schools.

"The kids here have obviously enjoyed it and all the teachers are talking about coming back next year and trying to do even better. That spirit will make a difference."

The participating pupils were chosen to represent their new learning communities across the city and faced a series of maths queries and puzzles drawn up by education advisers.

Susan Binns, the headteacher of Avenue End Primary, in Glasgow's East End, said the competition gave a boost to the children's self-esteem. "It is very good for the children's confidence to be in a situation like this," she explained.

"The approach to maths has altered, with more focus now on problem solving and allowing the children to develop strategies to tackle life problems."

Frances Boyle, the maths teacher at Notre Dame Primary, said: "Although this is competitive, the initiatives that Glasgow has for problem solving have been really good and inspire the children to work together as a team.

"I think it's all about learning from your mistakes and using other people's insight. Maths is much more open now and no longer a case of the teacher having the answers and imparting that to the children. Everybody works together now to find out the answers and you have to be brave enough to take a step back.

"But some of the children are far better mathematicians than I was at that age and bringing in the fun element of maths encourages them to continue the subject in later years."

The winning cup was named after Ann Simpson, a maths adviser who is nearing the end of her career after chairing the Maths Challenge Committee for seven years and instigating the primary schools challenge.

The committee of 10 principal teachers, long-serving teachers and new recruits to the profession have organised the much larger secondary maths challenge, in their own time, since 1991.

More than 300 pupils participate annually in the event, which consists of seven rounds, each of 15 minutes duration. The first round targets non-calculator skills and the subsequent rounds are either theoretical or practical challenges. Pupils are expected to work as a team and interaction, discussion and collaborative work is actively encouraged and reinforced throughout.

Wendy O'Donnell, Glasgow's secondary mathematics adviser, said problem solving lay at the heart of Glasgow's maths curriculum. "We've developed comprehensive support materials which promote problem solving as a life skill, and interactive and collaborative methods, which engage pupils actively in their learning, are essential to this process.

"Current research confirms that pupils learn best when they are actively engaged in their learning. We are striving to ensure that within classrooms there are a variety of activities to engage pupils in both theoretical and practical problems which will enable them to make good progress in mathematics."

To raise attainment within Glasgow, it was important that all children had the opportunity to undertake learning activities which had an appropriate level of challenge, she added. This competition allowed them to give their most able pupils the opportunity to experience a high level of challenge in an enjoyable context within which they could recognise achievement and celebrate success.

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