Shared approach

9th February 1996 at 00:00
Tim Rowland on publications produced for and by teachers. BEAM PROJECT. Starting from Celebrations Pounds 4.50. Starting from Journeys Pounds 4. 50. Exploring Place Value Pounds 19.50. Number at Key Stage 1 Pounds 15 Beam Project, Barnsbury Complex, Offord Road, London N1 1QH

BEAM ("Be A Mathematician") is a London-based mathematics curriculum support unit which was originally conceived within ILEA and, it is good to see, now appears to be thriving in the harsh and competitive new world of independent providers.

In a review four years ago, I described one of its earlier publications, BEAM Starters, as a "stunningly rich source of mathematical activities". I find myself unable to be quite so ecstatic about these four offerings.

Each of these books is a resource for teachers based on activities for children, presented in a standard format for speed of access.

Starting from Celebrations and Starting from Journeys are titles in a series designed to assist primary school teachers to realise some of the mathematical potential of popular topics. Each 36-page booklet begins with a rationale for cross-curricular mathematics and suggestions for classroom organisation. Then comes the heart of the booklets, 14 pages of Starting Points for Activities, grouped under six or seven thematic headings, such as Presents, Parties and Meals in Starting from Celebrations. Many of the proposed activities are imaginative, others more routine. Marginal notes link the activities with the curriculum for technology as well as for mathematics. Starting from Journeys is similarly cross-referenced to geography. A final section shows how various teachers developed some of the starting points in their classrooms.

Exploring Place Value has 17 activities (arguably not a lot for nearly Pounds 20) and no fewer than 16 authors. The multiple authorship is indicative of the success of BEAM in bringing teachers together to share ideas about primary mathematics. That old calculator chestnut "Skittles" is duly assigned a double spread; how can they dare to include it, but how can they bear to omit it? I noted with interest the sparse reference to structured base ten material. That would have been unlikely a decade ago, and reflects, I suspect, a current concern that children should be flexible in their choice of tools and methods of calculation.

The various contributions are presented in a standard format which sets out the aims of each activity, what to do with the children, useful questions to ask, possible variations and extensions and suggestions for organisation. Photocopiable sheets accompany some of the activities. If all that makes it sound rather like the teacher's handbook of a commercial maths scheme, then . . . well, there are similarities. The main differences are that there is more material specifically on place value than you'd find in most schemes, that it is less rigidly harnessed to closed learning objectives and - best of all - that there are no workbooks for children.

Number at Key Stage 1 grew out of the efforts of a group of teachers who had attended a course on developing a scheme of work for number. The introduction emphasises five "tools" which are central to the activities: mental mathematics, lines and other icons, calculators, objects, pencil and paper. The book is divided into nine sections, each with an activity focused on one of these tools, with informal assessment check-ups suggested up to level 3. This is a neat and effective matrix for conceptualising and organising the content and the process of key stage 1 number. While sharing some similarities with Exploring Value, the book feels much more substantial in what it has to offer.

These four publications are good quality resources for teachers, and Number at Key Stage 1 is my Best Buy. The hallmark of BEAM is the integrity that it brings to the primary mathematics Inset and publishing marketplace. I get uneasy about publications for busy teachers (are there any who aren't busy?) when they become short on starting points for mathematics but long on guidance for implementation. I fear that this may diminish the professional commitment of the user. BEAM Starters is the complete opposite, and still in print. In a TES review (October 13 1995), Mary Jane Drummond wrote: "It is hard to be reflective, critical or enquiring when a friendly expert is giving you so much excellent advice". For this reason, I hope that BEAM will resist the temptation to be too helpful to teachers, and continue to prosper in affirming their professionalism and supporting their development.

Tim Rowland is lecturer in mathematics education at Homerton College, Cambridge

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