Tim Rowland on how software can help the teaching of mathematics. It is now nearly 15 years since the Cockcroft Report gave a resounding thumbs-up to the harnessing of information technology for the teaching and learning of mathematics in schools. Since the 1982 government initiative to place a computer in every school, Britain has led the world in its innovative commitment to IT as a tool for learning. The good news for 1997 is that a visitor to a British primary school may well find a computer in every classroom. The bad news (for mathematics) is that it is likely to be in use for word-processing.
Most of the one-off computer programs for primary mathematics spawned in the 1980s were not technologically sophisticated (although a few were pedagogically inspired); a 20-minute hands-on session was usually sufficient to pick up enough know-how to be using such a program with the kids.
The limited simplicity of such programs was soon to be overtaken by the power and sophistication of "applications" such as spreadsheets. For the imaginative teacher of mathematics, one advantage of such software is that it is content-free - it is less prescriptive about "learning outcomes"; on the other hand, the teacher needs to learn what the software can do before planning to use it in the classroom. The prospect can be daunting. How can the busy (not to say beleaguered) primary school teacher be enticed and assisted to take advantage of the potential of such software for mathematics teaching?
The solution adopted in Enriching Primary Mathematics with IT is neat and well-judged. The first third of the book includes four short application tasters - of databases, spreadsheets, logo and graphics software. Here, we get a sense of the kinds of things that each package can offer, and where the potential is for mathematics. I was delighted to see attention given to drawing packages such as Draw, which have huge potential, as yet under-exploited.
However, the first chapter, on calculators, seems unnecessary. given the familiarity of this hand-held technology and the space limitations of the book, it may have been judicious to settle for references to other sources of calculators.
The next section begins with some practical advice about organisation for IT in the primary classroom - making the most of one desk-top computer and one teacher for a class of children. Here, Ainley draws on her research experience of affordable laptop computers. She proceeds to detailed exploration of four top-ten primary school topics (such as Ourselves), showing how familiar activities can be enriched by the use of IT. There are some very nice applications of the "applications" surveyed earlier.
Because of the variety of similar - but different - software applications available, the book sensibly avoids reference to detailed instructions for specific implementations. This inevitably leaves the reader with the need to make "some time to work on the computer with a friend or colleague. You will need the handbook for the particular software you have available to supplement the help given in each of the chapters."
I hope that Janet Ainley's book succeeds, as it deserves to do, in motivating and giving confidence to many more teachers to find that time, to begin to enrich their mathematics teaching in the ways that she offers and describes.
Tim Rowland is lecturer in mathematics at Homerton College, Cambridge.