Singing for your polygon

An unconventional method of teaching mathematics - by chanting catchy songs - is actually working. Should every school be in tune, asks Steve McCormack
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The Independent Online

It's teaching, but not as we know it. Until not long ago, music and singing belonged firmly in music or drama lessons. But, increasingly, teachers of subjects often regarded as dry and academic are realising that a song can be used as a vehicle for learning, a means of fixing information in children's heads that otherwise might have gone in one ear and out the other.

It's teaching, but not as we know it. Until not long ago, music and singing belonged firmly in music or drama lessons. But, increasingly, teachers of subjects often regarded as dry and academic are realising that a song can be used as a vehicle for learning, a means of fixing information in children's heads that otherwise might have gone in one ear and out the other.

And before Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells reaches for the fountain pen to fire off an angry missive to the letters page, let's be clear what this is not: it's not a substitute for "proper learning"; it's just one way of helping pupils retain information, which might be a mathematical formula, a scientific process or a grammatical rule. If they have fun while they're cementing something in their memory, then that's a bonus.

It is perhaps the most eye-catching ingredient in a new mix of teaching approaches, designed to raise students' motivation and help speed up their learning. One of the leading exponents of the techniques is Chris Tomlinson, a maths teacher and the deputy head at a new secondary school in Essex called Chafford Hundred Campus.

In an early morning maths lesson with 30, Year 7 pupils, I saw him putting his theories into practice, as he tried to introduce some new concepts of geometry.

As a warm-up, the students revised their existing knowledge by holding up plastic circles, parallelograms, kites, rhombuses and other shapes while Tomlinson called out the shapes' names. While this was happening, however, there was a simple, but effective, musical accompaniment. With "Love Is In The Air" playing on the CD, the pupils had to shout out the word "shapes" in unison every time the word "love" appeared in the song. The main objective - demonstrating knowledge of shapes - remained central, while the music and chanting introduced relaxation and fun.

Tomlinson recognises many children have in-built fears about maths, but knows that these can be dispelled by unconventional approaches. "Because I'm doing this in maths," he says, "a lot of kids are surprised because they think the subject is about answering questions from the board."

The next opportunity the students received to burst into song came after they'd learnt that a regular polygon has equal sides and equal angles. Here, I fear I may be stretching your musical knowledge past its limits, by inviting you to recall the Middle of the Road song, "Chirpy Chirpy Cheap Cheap", and the opening line, "Where's Your Mamma Gone?" Pop music it may be, but it undeniably has a snappy, catchy tune, and an opening line that can quickly metamorphose into Where's Your Polygon?

This simple line was swiftly mastered by the 12-year-olds singing along with the CD, and, on the title line of the song, with rigid hands scything horizontally in front of them, they chorused "Straighty Straighty Straight-ee".

There was no doubt that the pupils were enjoying themselves, but was anything sinking in? When I picked half a dozen at random at the end of the lesson I asked them what was the mathematical point of singing that song, they all replied without hesitation that a polygon has straight sides.

The singing and musical elements complimented the relaxed tone of Tomlinson's whole lesson, which included several occasions where the pupils moved around the room to write maths words on the boards, or moved their arms around, semaphore-style, to make shapes of acute, obtuse and reflex angles. Throughout the course of one lesson, therefore, the students were able to learn by kinaesthetic, visual and auditory means. Any teacher will tell you that a variety of teaching and learning styles helps to keep an hour-long class attentive and motivated.

The whole lesson was delivered in Tomlinson's idiosyncratic style: somewhere between cheeky market trader and Cockney stand-up comic. But his aim is the same as any maths teacher: to try to help children become more confident with numbers and mathematical concepts, because those are life skills, and to help them memorise what they learn, because that will help them prove what they know in exams.

As the class was packing up to go after an hour that had flashed by, Kirsten told me why she'd enjoyed a lesson that had had so much audience participation: "It feels like you're doing it, and not just being told what to do. That way, you remember it for longer." Her friend, Claire, chimed: "You're more likely to remember something if you're having fun doing it."

About 20 times a year, Tomlinson demonstrates his techniques to teachers in training days up and down the country. These are organised through the Alite company, run by Alistair Smith, whose pioneering demonstrations in so-called accelerated learning techniques inspired Tomlinson to develop his own ideas.

But he insists that he is not prescribing how teachers should run their lessons. "What I do is give teachers strategies. The key for them is to adapt these ideas to their own styles." The handwritten comments on evaluation sheets handed in by teachers who've attended his sessions are overwhelmingly positive. "Best training for maths I've ever attended." "Loads of practical ideas." "Very inspirational."

Fellow maths teacher Robin Penrose worked with him in a comprehensive in Newquay until recently. "He was my head of department and so inspirational. The beauty of his ideas is that they are so transferable. They could be used in any subject." Nick Windsor, a maths teacher at St John the Baptist mixed comprehensive in Woking, Surrey, saw Tomlinson singing with a class on a video at a school Inset session, and immediately decided to try out the methods in his own classroom.

"At the end of a lesson, say on the formula for the area of a circle, I will sing a song to the kids and they'll sing it back. For example, to the 'Kumbaya' tune, 'Pie R Squared, my Lord, Pie R Squared'.

"I use the technique with all year groups, from 7 to 11, and it works. The kids may think I'm a sad old maths teacher, but they remember the tune and the words, which means they've committed to memory a mathematical formula."

Windsor, who's in his third year of teaching, admits it wasn't easy going into a classroom for the first time knowing he was going to sing out loud. "I'm not sure whether I'd have done it in my NQT year, but now I'm comfortable in the classroom and banter with the kids. And they respond so well."

Another teacher from the Alite stable is Philip Davies, who has 15 years' primary experience behind him and now teaches a Year 6 class at Bannockburn Primary in Plumstead, south-east London.

Music, of one sort or another, is an almost ever-present element in his teaching. In the lesson I saw, he used three contrasting short pieces, which he'd composed and written himself, to stimulate his pupils' creative writing, as they looked at a slide of a wild dandelion projected on the board at the front of the classroom. Having, in previous lessons, introduced his class to imagery, metaphor, symbolism and simile (this is a class of 10- and 11-year-olds, remember), Tomlinson played the music and invited the children to look at the picture, "listen to their thoughts", and write creatively about the illustration in their books.

Some of the work that ensued would not have been out of place in a GCSE English class. "The clock people are leaving their dandelion world." "A screechy robot pleading for freedom." "I see an alien straight in front of me." "I feel the air."

Without the music, these fertile pools of invention would not have appeared in the minds of Davies's charges.

Davies also uses music, either recorded or played live, to punctuate the lesson for other reasons: to calm the class down when they've become too fidgety, to accompany a swift bout of co-ordinated movement to refresh the brain, and as background to a timed two-minute clear-up at the end of the lesson. As with Tomlinson's lesson at the secondary school, the musical elements compliment the learning and by no means replace it.

Both teachers admit that conventional bookwork also has to have a place in today's schools. Both have high standards and high expectations on behaviour and the quality of their pupils' work. But both have proved that music and song can be powerful stimuli to achieve those ends.


* Tune: "Pop Goes The Weasel"
* Learning objective: formula for the area of a trapezium

"Half the sum of the parallel sides

Times the distance between them;

That's the way we calculate

The area of a trapezium."

* Tune: Chant in the style of a US drill sergeant
Learning objective: what happens to numbers multiplied and divided by 10, 100 and so on.

"The numbers in the columns jump up and down.

Where are we gonna move them around?

Jump to the right to make a divide,

Jump to the left to multiply,

If you find you have a gap,

Wake the zero from its nap."