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Numberblocks - developing young children's understanding of numbers with CBeebies

Posted by Tribal Group on January 25, 2017

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 numbers. 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 numbers. 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.

Debbie Morgan is Director of Primary Mathematics at the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM).

NCETM support over a quarter of a million teachers to raise the level of Mathematics in the UK.

To explore the vast array of resources and support available for maths teachers visit https://www.ncetm.org.uk/

Topics: Schools & Early Years