Strength in numbers

10th September 2004 at 01:00

Maths software

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Fitness for purpose *****

Ease of use *****

Quality *****

Value for money *****

John Galloway plumbs the hidden depths of 2Simple's impressive maths support package

The first time I came across 2Calculate I had the feeling that this was software I would like to spend a bit of time with. I had a buzz that went beyond any "wow" factor I've felt before. Where to begin to tell the story of software such as this?

At first glance it seems plain and unprepossessing. It opens up to look like a piece of graph paper, or a page from a maths exercise book with numbers on the side. You might think it little more than a spreadsheet, but don't be fooled - it is much more than that.

Sure, you can simply click on the numbers and symbols to build sums - even without using formulas - and the answer just pops into the next square after the equals sign. It will prove a useful bridge to the likes of Excel when you come to that - letters and numbers for row and column headings can be shown, a formula bar will pop up and all the charts and graphs are there.

But you don't have to use these. You don't always have to teach pupils to begin calculations with an equals sign, or to use brackets, or to specify a function - at least not before they are ready to know. More thinking can go into doing the task and less into how to use the tools.

This is more than an easy way to introduce spreadsheets. It is loaded with tools, some of which you may never have known you needed. There is one that sits between figures to show whether the preceding one is "greater than", "equal to" or "less than". You could quickly use this with the random number generator tool to explore place value on the whiteboard with the whole class, or set up a template activity for pairs and individuals to do it for themselves. With the tools to hide squares, to lock the contents and to check answers, pupils can work to fixed ends or explore freely.

Then there is the option to use clip art, drawings and imported graphics and to give them values. Start pupils with algebra by assigning a value to an object and use these in calculations. Add hamburgers to chips and watch the cost or the calorie count rise.

Numbers can be formatted to be decimals, fractions or currency. Try calculating the cost of a new wardrobe by adding the clothes themselves, or work out what fraction of a pile of socks is black, or its decimal equivalent. You can also split images over several squares in order to illustrate these graphically.

The counter tool works for anything on the page - letters, numbers, images, or to fill colour - so you can ask it to count up how many of anything.

Copy and paste in a piece of text while holding down the shift key and each letter will get its own square. Then use the counter to find the frequency of different letters. Is "e" really the most commonly used vowel? Use the counter and a row of dice and you instantly get results to begin work on probability, throwing and recounting with a single click.

Then there is the spin tool, the timer, the random number generator and the various types of gauges and meters, including scales, a measuring jug and a thermometer. If that's not enough, it will also talk to you, reading out the numbers in any square.

If this all seems too much, don't worry - as the software comes with short explanatory videos, many of them linked to pre-set activities to help you learn and to explain to the pupils what they need to do. These all cross-refer to the numeracy section of the Primary Strategy and if you don't like what's there you can easily make up your own.

2Calculate offers that alluring combination of simplicity and sophistication which we all find so attractive in software. You feel an instant rapport and quickly get to know it - but no matter how much time you spend with it, there is always something more to appreciate. Where will it end?

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