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Oranges are not the only fruit: or how to help children love maths. Assisted by Led Zeppelin, Take That and The Prefab Four!

Date posted: Friday 6th June 2014


The Godfather: Are those oranges? Do you have a horse?

I have to admit that The Godfather is my second favourite film.* When it was first released, me and my 16-year-old friends pretended we were 18 and got to see it in a dingy cinema in Glasgow. I was horrified by the graphic violence, but was equally fascinated. I have watched The Godfather dozens of times since, but only recently noticed what thousands of people across the globe already knew: if you see some oranges in a scene, then something gruesome is going to happen next. You can see exactly the same thing in Layer Cake but they use Black Forest Gateaux instead. I suppose the makers of the film would claim that it’s an homage to The Godfather. To me there’s a fine line between homage and ripping off a great idea. (I’m just waiting for someone to make a film that is an ‘homage’ to Layer Cake, with a Victoria sponge in every scene.)

I was watching The Godfather recently, to check out the see some oranges and in the next scene someone will get bumped off theorem (it’s true, but don’t take my word for it) when I stopped dead in my tracks. There was a bowl of oranges on our coffee table. After I had hurriedly moved them into the kitchen, I was reminded of a story I heard from the legendary educator Dr Geoff Ivimey. He was talking to a young child about counting. He had a bowl of apples and said to the child, ’Let’s have a go at counting the apples.’ They both established that there were in fact 10. ‘Now’, said Dr Geoff, ’let’s eat one and see how many we have got left.’ After they had munched the apple they started counting. ‘I can’t do it’, protested our little friend, ‘Cos I can only count oranges.’ Apparently the little boy’s dad was keen for him to develop a love of maths, so sat him down every night with a bowl of oranges and made him count them.

We all had a laugh at this story, collectively went ‘Aahh!’ and then all felt sorry for the little boy. This type of early experience can be enough to turn children off maths for life. Unfortunately this is not an exaggeration. Of all the subjects we learn about in school, maths is the one that seems to generate feelings of fear and loathing. I must admit I thought that Geoff’s story was a bit apocryphal (for a long time I thought that meant it was originally told in a temple in ancient Greece), but it’s true. A friend of mine, who is now a head teacher, told me how when she was a little girl her father, who was himself a head teacher, used to sit her down and get her to count and do ‘takeaways’ with oranges. She developed a major complex about her ability to ‘do maths’ that lasted for many years. Apparently a similar experience led Jeanette Winterson to write Oranges are not the Only Fruit (According to Wikipedia, the book is a bildungsroman about a lesbian girl who grows up in a Pentecostal community in Accrington, Lancashire, but I think we can now clearly see that it is a metaphor for her being switched off maths at an early age.)

Led Zep, Tangerine: Did Plant and Page have issues with maths? Ooh, it makes me wonder.

I checked this phenomenon out with my colleague Judith Twani who, amongst many other things, is a specialist in maths in the early years. Her view is that maths is all around us, but unfortunately young children can be completely switched off because the adults around them focus almost entirely on numbers and introduce computation far too early.

A fear, and in some cases a real phobia, of maths can develop very young, and seems to happen when children are repeatedly asked to do ‘sums’ when they are just not ready, or the whole concept is taught in abstract. I was reminded of this when I supported a ‘remedial maths’ class of 13 and 14 year- olds in a high school. I was a bit surprised that there were so many girls in the class. The teacher, who was just brilliant, was not at all surprised: “We have many girls here who leave primary school with excellent achievement in maths, but very quickly lose confidence. When we look closely at what is going on (and believe me, this school took the subject of girls’ underachievement in maths very seriously) we find that the girls have become terrified of number and calculation.

In this class everything was taught at a very practical level: introducing the language of the subject and using examples that were meaningful to all the students. In that way they soon established the concept and could then work on how to record what they had learned. Sure, there was a fair bit of challenging behaviour, which usually came from the boys, but we sensed this was largely created by a fear of failure. One particularly memorable lesson springs to mind. I thought we’d look at everyday number ‘problems’ and asked the youngsters to think of a simple ‘problem’ and then convert it into numerals in a traditional ‘sum.’ It was July 1995, which was a very turbulent and traumatic month for many British girls.

Take That and their homage to The Beatles; and then there were how many?

There was one boy in the class, Ricky, with significant dyslexia. This showed itself in his almost complete inability to record anything in writing, including writing ‘sums’. He was particularly enamoured of Jodie, a pretty but very timid girl who was, like all the other girls in the class, a huge fan of possibly the greatest UK boy band of all time. It was well known that the Jodie-Ricky relationship was at a crucial point and could go either of two ways. Sometimes you could cut the tension in the class with a knife. (Anything sharp was banned in this room, so atmosphere was usually dissected with a shatter-proof plastic ruler.)

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but who could have predicted what would happen next? Ricky was particularly keen to come up to the board to pose his problem to the class, and to see if they could convert his verbal poser into a ‘sum’. “Take That have five members. Robbie Williams is sacked for taking drugs and being an alcoholic. How many band members are left?” All hell broke loose as Jodie leapt up and shattered her ruler over Ricky’s head.

The Rutles, before the tragic split when Barry Wom left. You do the math.

Oranges are not the only fruit, and numbers and calculation are not the only aspects of maths. Judith Twani and I have written a book called Let’s Talk About Maths! It’s not the only book about maths, but we take a close look at how to help children from 12 months until early school age develop a love of the maths that is all around them. There is a sandwich-making activity, and one with tangerines, but as far as I can remember, there are no activities featuring oranges.

Take care out there


*My favourite film is In the land of the Deaf

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4 responses to “Oranges are not the only fruit: or how to help children love maths. Assisted by Led Zeppelin, Take That and The Prefab Four!”

  1. Usha says:

    HI Michael

    Enjoyed reading this article.True, maths is all around us yet, we distance children from this by our own mistake of introducing numbers in a very abstract manner.


    • Michael Jones says:

      Hello Usha
      Thank you for replying. I suppose that teaching numbers and calculation are the easiest things for us to do, but there are so many other things to talk about! I find that children enjoy learning about and talking about money and shopping (as much as adults do!), so this is a good vehicle for all sorts of maths talk.
      Best wishes

  2. John Rice says:

    I find the symbolizing of numbers completely astonishing. I spent truly ages trying to find a child-friendly way to find an illustration of number representation (e.g. oo=2 and ooo=3, etc.) that would synthesise with the concept of place value before reaching the conclusion that I was incapable of the feat. Whilst I’m convinced that we are genetically programmed with the ability to perform maths I’m in awe of how children manage to move to abstract concepts so quickly.

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi John
      Nice to hear from you.
      I know exactly what you mean. I’ve just spent an hour with a six year old who just totally ‘gets’ counting on from 4 to 20 to get 16, in his head. He found me trying to help him really annoying!
      The human mind, in all its variations, is absolutely miraculous!!

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