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Numberblocks: Guest Blog by Debbie Morgan, NCETM Director for Primary Mathematics

Created on 23 January 2017 by ncetm_administrator
Updated on 30 January 2017 by ncetm_administrator

Charlie's Angles: Guest Blog by Debbie Morgan, NCETM Director for Primary Mathematics

The NCETM’s Director for Primary Mathematics, Debbie Morgan, has played a key role in the creation of a new BBC series of short programmes aimed at helping pre-school age children develop early understanding of number. Here she tells the story of her involvement.


When the phone rang early last year, and a man from something called an ‘animation studio’ started asking for my advice about a new BBC programme he was involved in that would try to help children learn maths, my first thought was ‘I’m really busy with more important things; have I really got the time to answer his questions?'

In most of the TV programmes I’d previously seen that purported to have a maths educational strand to them, the content was often a mixture of bad maths and dumbed-down maths, awkwardly inserted into a storyline with no connection to number understanding at all.

I doubted this would be any different.

But before I could find the words to politely end the call, I realised there was something different here. The man on the other end of the phone was using phrases like ‘deep understanding’ and ‘attention to detail rigour and accuracy in the mathematics.’ I was listening more closely now, since this was exactly the territory I’d been immersing myself in for the last few years, and these were the areas where we, at the NCETM, working with Maths Hubs, were already trying to help primary school teachers improve their pupils’ early understanding of number. He even said he wanted the programmes to help children understand ‘the fourness of four.’ Music to my ears. I was hooked.

That man was Joe Elliot, from Blue Zoo, who’d already worked successfully with the BBC on a CBeebies series called Alphablocks (helping children with early literacy) and once I saw their creative work, and heard about their ideas for using animation, songs, games and stories to get across number-learning, I was itching to get involved and have an impact on the quality of the programmes. I could see that, done well, these programmes had huge potential to support the mathematical development of young children. The first time I showed a draft example of a programme to teachers and saw their reaction, I knew we were on the right track.

Fast forward nine months and the fruits of our work, Numberblocks, is now being broadcast on the BBC’s CBeebies channel. There are 30 five-minute programmes - one every weekday morning for six weeks - which gradually build deep understanding of the numbers between one to five, with an element of mathematics being integral to each episode, and not just an add on. Here are some of the ways in which we tried to embed mathematical rigour into the characters and the stories:

  • There is a mapped curriculum running across the programmes, giving attention to detail and ensuring good coverage of early mathematical concepts. One episode for example addresses the key principles of counting as highlighted by Gelman and Gallistel (1979)
  • Each character is made of the relevant number of blocks, e.g. three is made from three blocks. This structure means that they can transform into other numbers (as actual numbers do). For example the characters 3 and 2 can combine to create the character 5
  • The “part whole” structure where numbers can be split (partitioned) into other numbers is exposed. The character five can separate into two and three, or four and one, for example. This structure is very strong in both the Shanghai and Singapore textbooks and many teachers in England are now realising the benefits for pupils of stressing this structure. Those that have been doing so - with Maths Hubs programme projects over the last couple of years - report that this is now having a significant impact on KS1. The Numberblocks use the structure of splitting and combining to solve problems - for example 1 and 2 combine to reach the apples on a tree
  • There is variation in the way a number sentence is represented, sometimes with the equals symbol at the start, and sometimes at the end (strong in Shanghai textbooks). This develops children’s fluency and flexibility in recognising number relationships
  • Images and abstract number sentences are always presented together to help children connect the concrete and the abstract (very important in mastery)
  • Songs and rhymes provide repeated sentences to talk about the maths and repetition to embed learning
  • Precise and accurate mathematics vocabulary is used
  • Connections are made between concepts, for example addition and subtraction.

Working with talented animators and creative storytellers and songwriters has been a privilege for me, and all the more so because they took the maths in every episode seriously.

I’m sure that children watching the series will benefit enormously, and I’d encourage teachers to consider taking a look at these programmes and considering how they might use them as a resource to support teaching.

This is how the Numberblocks series introduces the number 3:

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24 October 2017 19:26
The principles of counting is entitled "How to Count"- It's a lovely day for a picnic but one of the flapjacks is missing! Is there a Flapjack-snaffler on the loose or has Three forgotten what Numberblocks do best?

The DVD is now available and includes the first 15 episodes - available from Amazon, WH Smith ad some supermarkets. The planned NCETM resources will take some time to produce. However lots of teachers are developing theit own ideas eg Printing numberblocks after watchig "Stampolines" Also the programme has just been nominated for a BAFTA - Three will be very excited to walk down the red carpet!
24 October 2017 11:55
Which episode addresses the key principles of counting as highlighted by Gelman and Gallistel (1979)
23 October 2017 20:25
Back in July it was mentioned that NCETM are producing some teacher resources to go with the programmes, do you have any updates on whether this is happening and if so when? Thanks.
By saro322
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03 October 2017 14:33
Do you know when the Number Blocks planning is going to be released? I was told it should be within the next few weeks?
By ebarratt
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04 July 2017 17:15
The BBC have scheduling periods. They say they will repeat the series over the coming months and also say it will be available on iPlayer at various times. The good news however is that there is also likely to be a DVD in the future. In addition the NCETM are planning some teacher resources to go with the programmes, which, when prepared, will appear on the NCETM website.
29 June 2017 18:40
Oh how frustrating ... means we'll all be doing the same, spending our time downloading them to use in school
By j9allen
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29 June 2017 08:41
Did you know that this is now unavailabe to buy on the BBC store as they are closing and I have been offered a refund of the purchase price for series one that I had already bought. The problem is that Numberblocks appears to be unavailable to buy and stream from anywhere else and it is shortly expiring on BBC iplayer. Is there anything that you can do about this as it is a superb series - a fantastic educational resource. My only option now is to download YouTube videos!
By plf678
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14 February 2017 12:33
Great to see your involvement with this! I will be recommending it to parents on my 'Maths for Parents' courses.
By RosemaryR
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09 February 2017 20:50
The programme is aimed at 3 to 6 year olds and a TV programme has to cater for all of its target audience. The number sentences are there but do not dominate. Also it serves to link the abstract with the concrete. Children see them but would not be expected to write them in early years settings.
06 February 2017 19:55
Hi Debbie,

Thanks for replying. I see what you mean now as your response with episode 4 left me non-plussed! Good to see them changing shape. Keep up the super number work!
By MrRoy
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05 February 2017 20:30
I love this programme in so many ways - and the delighted reaction of my year 1s showed me that it is going to be a big hit! However, I do wonder why it was decided to introduce the additon and equals sign in a pre-school programme? Great that it changes position, (especially for parent to see!) but I am not sure that such an abstract representation brings any real benefit to quite such a young audience?
By Evans.S10
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01 February 2017 15:01
Just realised three doesnt change shape in this episode, however he does in ithers, episode 6 for example wher the number 4 is introduced http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b08d61cv/numberblocks-series-1-four
01 February 2017 11:52
The great thing is that they do both and more. The characters are flexible and change shape, supporting variation and drawing attention to differnt properties. Please see the introduction of three (Episode 4) http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b08bzgxx/numberblocks-series-1-three
25 January 2017 21:16
Hi Debbie,

Great to see maths featuring on TV in an engaging fashion for the new learners. One question. When the number 'shapes' were decided, why was it decided to go for a vertical/ stacked 3 rather than a small L as numicon do?

I feel that fro children to understand the number representation and the formulation of a pattern, the L shape works better visually. It would be interesting to hear your point of view on this.

Kind regards,

Richard Roy
By MrRoy
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