The hardest to get my head around was Babylonian which uses a base 60 system, which we still find in our time units today. Once I began thinking like that, I began to be able to see the beauty of the system and its inherent usefulness, however clumsy it is to work out at first!
The main thing I took from this was the urge to share some of this maths from other cultures with my class – we are currently studying Ancient Greece as our main topic, and were about to start a Literacy unit called stories from other cultures in which I focus on tales from the middle East (Mesopotamia, now Iran and Iraq – precisely where the Babylonian system originated). This seems like an opportunity not to be missed to create a link between Literacy and Numeracy as well as discover a little about the history of the numbers we use today.
I planned two lessons based on the work we covered – one looking at Ancient Egyptian numbers and the other based on the Babylonian system.
My class were able to understand and use the Egyptian system well – by the end of the hour they could add, subtract and complete multiplication sums using their symbols. I deliberately didn’t teach them the Egyptian way of multiplying as I was unsure whether their knowledge of the systems we use today was strong enough and wanted to avoid confusing them! The children were able to see links between the Egyptian system and ours easily, with them both using base 10, and could therefore think in English numbers, as it were, and convert into Egpytian…
The Babylonian lesson went less well. The process of converting from our numerals into Babylonian ones a simple process up to 59. After that, it becomes a little tricky as my class made clear with exasperated cries of frustration!
I still think there is merit in discussing these systems with the children – if only to look at the practicality of different ways through history!
Other tasks we have been asked to complete include looking at how numerate my school is and to consider what children know about numbers by asking them to consider what the biggest number they know is.
It turns out that the classrooms at my work place are generally well set up children to encounter numbers. There were many examples of number lines, multiplication squares, and so on. It was also clear that these opportunities occur far more often the lower down school children are – with the upper Key Stage 2 classes having far fewer examples of numbers around the rooms. The other areas particularly lacking in number were the additional parts of the building – things such as corridors, the hall, the reception area and the whole outdoor area. Plans are now in place to make these areas a little more interactive number-wise. There is now a dedicated numeracy display board in the hall, there will be a series of number challenges around the corridors and there will be an outdoor number trail created around school when the weather is a little nicer.
“What’s the biggest number you can think of?”
I asked this question to children in all classes from Reception upwards with the results showing a wide range of ideas. The concept of billions appeared as early as Year 1, but even in Year 2 there was a little confusion over the order of numbers (2000 and a billion being one answer there). In Year 3, they struggled to think of anything larger than one million. Infinity made its first appearance in Year 4, although I also got the answer “20 thousand, 5 million and 2 million” from a child in this class. Year 5 produced some spectacular answers, each trying to outdo the previous child. After “a trillion 9s”, we had “infinity times a trillion”. I couldn’t really argue with that…
This exercise shows me that there are some issues with place value in school – many children gave garbled answers which I had to reorder to make into a number – but also that children struggle to read larger numbers when written down. This was the extension task I gave them and the children were OK when reading four digit numbers, but problems crept in with the majority of children once more digits were used.