We have the answers

10th January 2003 at 00:00
David Burghes shows how an interactive approach borrowed from eastern Europe improves pupils' learning

Just for once, here is a good news story of success in maths. Five years ago, the JJCentre for Innovation in Mathematics Teaching at the University of Exeter started a programme to improve the way we teach maths.

The Mathematics Enhancement Programme (MEP) is based on highly interactive strategies used in countries such as Hungary and Poland.

Our evaluation of its use in this country has revealed several key strategies for success. These are:

* combining interactive, whole-class teaching with individual work

* setting homework after every lesson to reinforce the work covered and to prepare for the next lesson. This is then reviewed at the start of that lesson

* teaching with enthusiasm and humour, using a variety of activities in every lesson with exercises set and reviewed question by question

* giving clear, precise descriptions and explanations of concepts

* continuous monitoring of progress of all pupils with mistakes used as teaching points

* having seating so that you have eye contact with all pupils. It should also be easy to get to all pupils and easy for them to see and get to the board

* using high levels of interaction, with all pupils regularly working at the board in front of the class

* above all, putting yourself back as the orchestrator of the learning throughout the lesson.

The programme used 75 volunteer schools and the best performers have shown considerable gains at both key stage 3 and GCSE. Most schools have increased their candidates gaining grades A*-C by 10 percentage points over two years. The gains were dependent on implementing the full strategies, particularly the high level of interaction with pupils demonstrating in front of the class.

Implementing these strategies requires strong leadership from the head of department, backing from the school management team, a committed and stable workforce, confident and capable teachers with good discipline and control and a willingness to take risks and use professional judgment.

This is where we are back with the problem of attracting and retaining quality maths teachers. Too many departments have to rely on temporary and overseas teachers and supply cover, making it difficult to put the MEP strategy into practice.

To help teachers, experienced and otherwise, we have provided support for KS3 and GCSE on our website at www.intermep.org We have also provided the complete set of resources, including pupil material (also available in book form) on the internet, again free. We are developing lesson plans for KS3; for pupils who require reinforcement, we have an interactive version. These tutorials (Year 7 is online now and Year 8 is being added throughout the year) are at www.ex.ac.ukcimtmepresbook7book7int.htm

With 40,000 hits a day, the site has proved popular. It also enables us, as researchers, to be independent, not frightened to say what needs improving in schools.

Despite the popularity of our website, it is clear to us that how you teach is what really matters rather than the resources used. For this reason we are now focusing on training and, in particular, how to train weaker or non-specialist teachers.

So the good news is that we have demonstrated that the interactive style of teaching can enhance mathematics, but the worrying news is that we do not have enough capable teachers to put this into practice.

Professor David Burghes is the director of the Centre for Innovation in Mathematics Teaching, University of Exeter

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