Transforming moments

18th November 2005 at 00:00
Students in an Oxfordshire college find they can master transformations - with the help of Batman. Sebastian Lander reports on an innovative teacher who is showing the relevance of maths

You could be forgiven for thinking it was the last day of term and not first period maths on a Monday morning. Teacher Upali Perera is loading a Batman clip on to the SMART Board, and as the caped crusader's logo beams into the night sky, the Year 7 class at Icknield Community College in Watlington, Oxfordshire, are learning about enlargements. The initial "oohs" and "aahs" are soon replaced by a rapid relay of arms shooting in the air in response to a series of questions about Batman. "By connecting the topic to the cinema and a common interest," says Upali, "I am getting them to make a real-life connection to understand the maths." And combining the use of technology with making a real-life connection seems to be the main axis of Upali's technique.

Understanding the maths doesn't stop at Batman. Upali has designed a variety of computer programs for use in lesson time which have proved to be a resounding success - and not only within the confines of the school walls. Upali was one of the teachers who represented the UK at the Microsoft European Innovative Teachers Awards in Stockholm earlier this year. He was required to submit a Virtual Classroom Tour - the enlargements program he is showing the class today, which is part of a maths curriculum unit on loci and transformations. The software he used to create this resource is Microsoft Excel, which enables the user to enlarge two-dimensional shapes by specifying a centre of enlargement and varying scale factors.

Upali conjures up a shape on to the grid on the SMART Board and goes through the theory bit by bit, clicking buttons to make changes, going back if something is not understood. The diagrams are clear, colourful and engaging, and the program is easy to navigate. Upali invites some of the students to come up to the board to change the shapes and take the rest of the class through the procedure, while relating what they see to what they would do if they were drawing on paper.

"The program came about because, at my last school, if I tried to explain a problem on the board, children would want to see an accurate sketch," says Upali. "This can be difficult to draw on a blackboard." It seems logical that, in a discipline such as maths, precision in all aspects is vital.

While Upali designed it as a teaching tool for the interactive whiteboard, the software can also be used on a laptop as a learning tool by students.

"Using ICT in maths changes the relationship between the students and the teacher," says Upali. "Students work with the computer instead of with the teacher and this power shifting helps the two to work together on a problem rather than the students trying to solve something set by the teacher."

Once the class have understood the methodology of enlargement, Upali tells them to log on to the school website, where they can find the program he has just been showing them. They then get 15 minutes to try enlarging shapes for themselves, using what they have learned.

"Allowing students to work on the laptops helps them to start thinking more for themselves, rather than depending on the teacher," he says. "It lets them work by trial and error and if they make mistakes, they can start again. It also encourages student interaction."

Upali also found that the use of ICT affects behaviour. "It attracts learners' interest, improves motivation and self-esteem, and reduces distractions due to non-task-directed behaviour."

After experimenting with the software, the students have a go at enlarging a shape in the traditional way - on graph paper, with a ruler and pencil.

Meanwhile, Upali works on an electronic version on the SMART Board, so they see exactly what he is doing. The lights go down once more and a video clip shows a group of children acting out the relationship between the Sun and the Moon, using the length of a football pitch. Learning that the Sun is 400 times bigger than the Moon puts enlargement into an everyday context.

Richard Hudson, the college headteacher, says Upali has had a big impact on the maths department, in broadening its horizons. "Maths is hard to conceptualise," he says, "and if it is more visual, there is more understanding. Upali shows how maths can be functional in the world around them, making it relevant."

Enlargement is not the only curriculum topic that Upali has designed an ICT resource for, using Excel, Macromedia, PowerPoint and The Geometer's Sketchpad. To help students understand prisms and nets, he has designed software which allows users to construct three-dimensional shapes, open and close cubes, rotate objects and look at surface area - the possibilities are endless. But although constructing the resources is relatively simple, it takes a lot of work. "I'm often working until one in the morning," he says. He has also used The Geometer's Sketchpad to create a resource which looks at loci. A simple animated bicycle moves across the screen, with a specified point on the wheel. As the bike moves along, a line of arcs is left behind, showing clearly how loci work, and in a medium which is common currency for children.

Upali has also given students the opportunity to do their homework online and check the answers. The workbook format he shows them on the SMART Board is like an electronic book, with pages that can be turned by touching and pulling them across - visually stimulating in itself. Putting their work online allows pupils to evaluate themselves and repeat a piece of work until they understand it. They can speak to Upali about any problems they encounter, and he can see their weaknesses.

"Learners should know how to learn," he says. "They can create their own methods. By putting their homework online, if they are interested, they can go onto the web to find out information. Parents can see that rather than seeing them play games." And it seems the innovative practices which Upali has been praised for in Watlington - and in Sweden - are not the end of the matter. "The next thing is to set up a system where students can email me their homework," he says.

l Icknield Community College: Details of the Innovative Teachers Programme are on the Microsoft website under 'Schools Quick Links'

Winning tactics

Upali Perera points out that learners need to be taught the technical skills required before they tackle an activity. They should be prepared for the task before they sit down at the keyboard. He also suggests the following:

* Make the content of the activities relevant and appropriate for the learner. It should be challenging but not too difficult.

* It is important that learners should identify the relationship between the lesson objectives and the use of ICT.

* Plan appropriate assessment of students' work and give feedback, allowing time at the end of each lesson to discuss problems that arise.

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