Maths: Add ICT into the equation

The use of computers in maths lessons can help children overcome a mental block, says Amy McLellan
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The Independent Online

If the thought of simultaneous equations has you breaking out in a cold sweat and Pythagoras triggers flashbacks to gloomy afternoons of incomprehension and boredom, then the chances are you haven't been near a modern maths class in years. Today's mathematics lessons are punctuated with colourful PowerPoint presentations, interactive 3D problem-solving games and online sudoku puzzles.

This is not dumbing down, according to the people who make the software - pupils still need to work through the methodology and grasp the concepts behind the mathematics. But the use of ICT is helping displace some of the fear that so many of us harbour when it comes to using numbers.

"A lot of people are scared of maths because they pick up attitudes from their parents and are told, 'You won't get anywhere in life if you don't pass maths'," says Brenda O'Sullivan, chief executive of e-learning provider Electric Paper. "ICT makes maths very unthreatening. You can go at your own pace and have another go if you get it wrong so there's no embarrassment."

And it seems ICT has a lot to offer in a subject where learning is cumulative, with one topic building on another, where recaps, reiteration and demonstration are the key to cracking often complex concepts.

Teachers don't even need hacker-level IT skills to make ICT an effective teaching aid. Martin Brown, head of maths at Hayes Secondary School in Bromley, says interactive whiteboards, even when used like an old-fashioned chalk board to present information, can make a difference to pupil engagement and comprehension.

"You can save the work, flick through different pages and review what you did in previous lessons," says Brown. "It helps re-iterate how you solved problems and the method you used."

It also keeps pupils engaged. "They love coming up and writing on the board because it's that bit more high-tech and there's a bit more kudos than using a lump of chalk," says Brown.

His colleague in the maths department, Robert Dodson, agrees. "IT is their domain and if you can use it confidently you shoot up in their estimation." He adds that ICT makes it easier for teachers to be creative in the classroom because, via the World Wide Web and a broadband connection, there's a wealth of materials and data at your fingertips to enliven topics such as probability, data-handling and percentages. From live football results to weather data, from disease patterns to airline schedules, it's possible to make maths interesting, fun and relevant.

Dodson prepares his own material, which he annotates during lessons - "it was time consuming at the beginning but now I've built a library of my own lessons," he says. But there are plenty of ready-made resources out there. It's worth taking a little time to research what will work best for you and your class.

Raj Patel, ICT co-ordinator at Parliament Hill, an 11-to-18 girls' school in Camden, North London, says teachers should use their ICT departments as a sounding board and take a long-term view of a product's usefulness and effectiveness. "Don't always put price at the top of the list," says Patel. "Sometimes it's worth spending a little more money to get something you'll use a lot and is flexible for the future."

He advises looking for products that provide pupils with feedback so they learn through their mistakes (such as the self-marking Living Worksheets exercises); products that are visually interesting to keep pupils engaged (flash animations can really brighten up presentations); and products that have the flexibility to be used with different applications (imported into Microsoft PowerPoint or Word, for example).

This doesn't mean text books and teachers are out of the door. "ICT is only a powerful tool in the hands of a good teacher and in the hands of a bad teacher it will be mediocre at best," says O'Sullivan of Electric Paper, which has designed its E-Tutor package to work seamlessly alongside Heinemann's ICT Links books. "It's a tool that enables good teachers to spend more time on what they're good at and that's teaching."

No teacher, however good, can afford to ignore ICT. Not only is it part of government policy to "embed" ICT across the curriculum, it is, as Kate Billings, maths co-ordinator at Oakthorpe Primary in North London, points out, a medium which is second nature to today's school children. "This is part of their world and they are used to this kind of stimulus," says Billings.

Educational games are becoming increasingly sophisticated to reflect the expectations of tech-savvy pupils. Caspian Learning, for example, provides 3D games to develop problem-solving skills while Whizz Education has an extensive catalogue of brightly animated maths games.

For those watching the budget, there are also plenty of free resources. Maths is probably one of the best catered for subjects when it comes to ICT so a quick browse of websites can turn into an extended trawl: ask other teachers what works best for them (see box).

But as Kate Billings of Oakthorpe Primary points out, ICT doesn't just mean computers: it includes calculators, audio- video cameras and digital cameras. This opens the door to some really creative and interesting projects. A data handling and problem-solving class at Oakthorpe can see the children tasked with working out how many extra parking spaces are needed in the school's car park. The solution? The children set up a video camera to record the number of cars passing the lane outside the school over the course of a school day. Each group in the class was allocated an hour of that day and worked out how many and what types of cars went by. The whole class then came together, the findings were collated and pie charts and graphs were drawn.

"We could not have collected that unique data without using the camera," says Billings. "It means they are using different learning styles - visual, audio and kinetic - so you hope everyone is getting something out of it."

Even reception-age pupils are regularly using ICT at Oakthorpe. "If they are learning about shapes, for example, they use digital cameras to go around the school grounds to take photographs of different shapes in their local environment, whether it's the squares in the windows or car wheels," says Billings. "It helps bring maths to life. It really motivates them to be using local data and seeing maths in action in the outside world."

Maths? Nothing to be scared of at all.

Teachers' choices

* Many teachers are fans of Cambridge University's nrich website of fun and stretching problems and games, which every month are based around a different theme ( www.nrich.maths.org.uk).

* The Mathematical Association's website includes online puzzles and problems, including the Primary Mathematics Challenge ( www.m-a.org.uk).

* Channel 4's Learning zone ( www.channel4.com/learning) has a useful microsite called Puzzlemaths, with a selection of free games and puzzles.

* The www.mathszone.co.uk website links to a range of primary-level resources. Schoolzone ( www.schoolzone.co.uk) is a gateway to a vast array of paid-for and free resources.

* Want your pupils to develop Carol Vorderman's brain? Try the Countdown game, complete with music, at www.subtangent.com/maths/countdown

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