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Learning Maths outside the Classroom Professional Development Module 3 - For Everyone Involved in Mathematics Education

This page has been archived. The content was correct at the time of original publication, but is no longer updated.
Created on 14 May 2008 by ncetm_administrator
Updated on 21 October 2010 by ncetm_administrator

Learning Maths Outside the Classroom


In November 2006 the DCSF published its manifesto 'Learning Outside the Classroom'. The NCETM actively promotes the learning of mathematics outside the classroom, this part of our web portal features projects that demonstrate good practice from many parts of the country. This professional development module is designed to help explore the possibilities of facilitating mathematics outside.

Module 3 - For Everyone Involved in Mathematics Education

Continuing Professional Development for Teachers by Victoria Barnes


Learning outside the classroom is invaluable and essential to learning.  It allows children to see the world which is beyond the classroom – a world which many of the children, in our society today, will never have the opportunity to experience.  It is our role as teachers to then utilise places, other than the classroom, to stimulate, inspire and enhance learning.  Links need to be made between real life and school to give learning a sense of purpose and a need for children to achieve.  We give most consideration to what children are actually learning – the learning objectives, however it is just as important to give thought to where children learn and how children learn.

Teachers’ Perspectives
The opportunities for using outdoor environments for the teaching and learning of mathematics are endless – there is maths all around, we just need to see it.  Local studies (beach, rivers, shopping centres, garden centres, parks, museums, swimming pools etc.) are cheap and readily available, whist visits further a field (other cities in England, theme parks, museums, Universities, galleries, cities in Europe etc.), can provide children with the best preparation for the future, while opening up a world of new opportunities.   

Many teachers perceive using outdoor environments as difficult to plan and manage, additional work which is unnecessary when teaching numerical skills.  Yet, it is important for these teachers to consider what type of mathematics curriculum we need to offer our children today.  A curriculum based solely upon the acquisition of skills, or a curriculum which builds on the belief that initiatives, which have the greatest impact upon teaching and learning, staff and pupil motivation, behaviours and aspirations, are those which are experiential and which afford the children the opportunity to see the bigger picture for themselves by actually living it?  We need to encourage and support children to take full advantage of all that education can offer today and in the future, and that it can essentially be a catalyst for changing lives and addressing issues relating to social disadvantage.

Integrating outdoor experiences can be easily managed within a daily timetable if they are viewed as the primary tools for teaching and learning and not additional experiences.  The mathematics curriculum needs to become ‘real’.  Yes time is necessary to teach basic skills, yet valuable, planned time to apply these skills, linking outside learning into the classroom will be what stimulates our children, it will be what creates a love of maths for many, it will be what ultimately raises standards!

With regard government frameworks, standards and performance it is believed we are creating a climate where teachers are afraid to divert from government literature, afraid to take risks, afraid to introduce radical, challenging and purposeful curriculum design and practice.  Why is this?  For fear SATs results will plumet or for fear that we may be offering children broad and exciting opportunities to use and apply their skills, to stimulate and extend pupils’ thinking and advance their learning and understanding, in turn empowering children for lifelong learning and active citizenship?

The majority of children, who enter into mathematics activities involving an environment beyond the classroom, appear positive, motivated and enthusiastic comments such as: ‘enjoyable’, ‘exciting’, ‘interesting’, ‘amazing’ and ‘challenging’, highlight children’s need for the ‘fun’ element to be given high priority when considering a school’s mathematics curriculum and how new environments can be a stimulating model for all topic areas.

Children are always keen to participate when they do not believe that they will be asked to ‘work’ – is this because the fun element camouflages the facts that learning is actually taking place?  Or are teachers themselves inspired by these alternative approaches and their enthusiasm naturally filters down to the children they teach?

Teachers find that children tend to remain on task and focused, whilst applying mathematics skills to real life situations, making sense of learning and giving it real purpose within life.  Consequently, with the support of peers, children are encouraged to take their learning further and begin to acquire new skills in addition to the necessary numerical basics.

Yet, for small groups of children, an environment which shows none of the physical barriers of a classroom, attention, behaviour and learning new skills can be difficult.  These children need to be carefully planned for.  Humans are not programmed to fit neatly into boxes which society has provided for us – they work in many different ways.  Just as we believe that a classroom can possibly lead to a structured, yet less creative curriculum which possibly has a negative effect on some children, a new environment can hinder learning and be an uncomfortable experience which has a detrimental affect on their learning.     

Children’s perceptions of maths need to be raised to assist them in real work and set a purpose for their education.  As a society we must promote mathematics as the door to a better, more equal and prosperous world, and the key to economic development, to motivate and inspire children to achieve, aiding economic whilst development in socially disadvantaged areas. 

With the adaptation of the Numeracy Strategy and using and applying a primary focus, it is imperative that we consider the introduction of numerous radical and creative projects into the school’s annual timetable, which will encourage teaching and learning in a practical, purposeful manner, stimulating creative thinking, analysis, dialogue, discussions and practical application of knowledge and understanding.  All mathematical skills (all topic areas) can be consolidated and then applied in a situation which makes sense to children and shows them the need for these skills in everyday situations and everyday life.   

Family Learning Perspective
Real environments are places where learning within a family takes place – a family does not have a classroom, books, interactive whiteboard, counters and counting sticks.  They have shopping, farms, the garden, cooking and holidays.  Parents only resource is a real environment to support and encourage their child’s learning, yet many parents have a rather limited and negative view of their own school days and are reluctant and/or unable to become involved.

Who really though have the tools more readily available to stimulate and motivate children – parents!  Who are limited by their lack of mathematics skills and knowledge to use these enriching, alternative classrooms – parents!  Schools must become communities where families are supported to support their children.  Parents need to be turned back on to education and instilled with a desire to want to learn alongside their children, for their children.

Parents views of education, and in general maths, are worrying for our future society, comments such as: ‘difficult’, ‘boring’, ‘not interesting’, ‘hated maths at school’, ‘never any good’, ‘failure’, ‘made me miserable’, ‘not necessary’, ‘not my strongest point’ need to be addressed.  What support can these parents offer their young child or will they be willing to offer?

Parents can easily become involved in ‘maths education’ outside the classroom, whilst supporting visits where they will be immersed in ‘maths’ in a safe, non-threatening environment.  We can offer parents the tools and skills and then hope they are used in daily life with their child. 

How Can We Assess?
Assessing children’s learning whilst working without books has to be given thought, or does it?  We need to sit and watch children.  Watch children interactive with the mathematics and with their peers.  We need to observe children investigating, making their own choices working towards given objectives, enquiring and talking about their own learning and how to apply skills within real life situations.  Do we not then, as a profession need to reconsider what assessment actually is?  Is it not easier to assess children when they are eager to work and learn?  Do we not wish to know whether children can apply mathematics skills in given situations?  Do we want to observe reluctant children thriving and achieving? 

Learning outside provides scope for teachers to work together, within a coaching model, with planned opportunities to analyse learning.  This happens less and less frequently in the classroom due to various constraints – a school visit however will always involve more than one member of staff (whether class teachers or teaching assistants) and therefore offer valuable time to be involved in professional dialogue, which will in turn create a learning culture, which exploits opportunities to achieve the highest possible standards.  Time can be spent engaging in whole school or year group discussions, in regard to embedded, effective assessment, consequently informing subsequent, curriculum planning and practice and devoting necessary opportunities to explore learning and teaching strategies and approaches to benefit children. 

Whilst applying skills it is often that gaps in children’s learning are highlighted and therefore generates additional, necessary work relating to key skills for back in the classroom, which many teachers may not have been made aware of.  

The recording of assessment can take various forms – it does not have to be only written evidence.  Photographs, videos, actual work, children’s evaluations etc. are all excellent forms of evaluation which can provide detailed information of children, at both ends of the ability spectrum: strengths and areas for development, learning perferences, year/term/week curricular targets and improvement priorities, with regard pupil performance.

One School’s Belief
Schools need to give real thought to the mathematics currciulum they wish to offer their children and how as a community (schools, teachers, parents, outisde agencies) we can work togther to create a work force of the furture, possibly to rival societies on the pacific rim – who view education and mathematics as the key to all!





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