Some useful maths ideas

Written by: Susan Elkin | Published:

The opening of the Winton Gallery offers a new destination for maths-inspired school outings. Susan Elkin takes a look, and also considers some other useful classroom resources to support maths education

A maths colleague once told me that she always volunteered to go on extra-curricular English, art and geography trips because her own subject offered no field trip opportunities.

Nowadays there are – along with other resources – trip destinations which make maths fun and relevant for everyone. Below are some ideas and inspiration.

The Winton Gallery

The Winton Gallery at the Science Museum opened last autumn. The content is based around 100 items from the Science Museum’s collection. Each tells, or contributes to, a powerful story about how maths has shaped, or been shaped by, some of our most fundamental human concerns – from trade and travel to war, peace, life, death, form and beauty – during the last four centuries.

It seeks to show that maths underpins every aspect of everyday life just as language does. And the gallery itself is a stunning example of art meets science. Designed by Zaha Hadid Architects it uses the patterns made by air currents in flight as its visual inspiration. The result is a huge central mass of pink/purple blue ethereal but solid, beautifully lit shapes between the roof and a Handley Page “Gugnunc” aircraft (pictured, below). It’s an impressively dramatic statement.

Thus there’s a 17th century Islamic astrolabe which uses ancient mathematical techniques to map the night sky. Nearby is an early example of the famous Enigma machine used to resist code-breaking during the Second World War.

Also on display is the box of glass eyes which Frances Galton used in 1884 to develop statistics to support the movement he called “Eugenics”. There’s a splendid classical door case from Lincolns Inn to demonstrate that architecture is a mathematical discipline because of its links with geometry.

There are displays about medicine, forensics, statistics and much more – although I was slightly puzzled by the conspicuous absence of music which has many inarguable mathematical patterns and concepts.

Captioning and explanations are commendably well written and accessible. The loud and clear message is that maths is crucial to life and closely related to most other subjects so somehow we have to engage young people with it as something exciting and interesting to learn about and experiment with, rather than letting them write it off as boring and difficult as so many adults do. It also makes the point that you cannot study or appreciate maths in isolation. Its real beauty is its intricate relationship with everything else.

The Winton Gallery is open daily and admission is free. I predict that many school parties will visit as well as families.

“My dream is that soon the ‘maths field trip’ will be as standard as the theatre visit or geography expedition now that this gallery is here,” said David Rooney, lead curator of The Winton Gallery, at the launch of the new gallery.

Mr Rooney is also the Science Museum’s “keeper of technologies and engineering”. His new book Mathematics: How it shaped our world is effectively an adjunct to the exhibits on display in The Winton Gallery.

Not that the Science Museum has a monopoly on potential maths resources and the potential for relevant visits.

British Museum

The British Museum offers a free teacher-led session in which students (key stages 3, 4 and 5) undertake a number of activities around the museum based on the theme of money. Students apply concepts from citizenship and mathematics to unfamiliar challenges. Resource packs are supplied by the museum.

Also at the British Museum is the Citi Money Gallery Education Programme, which includes, for example, money handling and financial education for key stages 3, 4 and 5. It is a full day (four hours) session and it is free, although you have to book well in advance. There are maths notes – along with notes on other subjects – on the museum’s website showing teachers how to get the best from the day in terms of student learning.

Some useful school-based resources

  • Teachit Maths: If it is school-based resources rather than trips out you need then consider signing up to Teachit Maths – basic membership is free. Once you’re registered you have access to PDF resources. It you want adaptable versions, PowerPoint resources and Whiteboard activities and the facility to be able to save, share and organise them then it costs £35 per year for an individual or £150 for a department. The list of topics covered ranges from trigonometry to polygons, from probability to algebra and more. It probably has the potential to save a lot of time.
  • KS3 Maths: At a rather more basic level you can download and print free numeracy worksheets from the KS3 maths website. These cover things such as tables, fractions, percentages, BODMAS and negative numbers and could be useful, especially for students who aren’t mathematically accomplished, lack confidence and/or need to catch up with work they struggled with in primary school.
  • Maths Made Easy: A lot of the Maths Made Easy site is fairly basic too although it covers the curriculum right through to key stage 5. The emphasis in on practising skills and students could easily be directed to use the tests, exercises and activities directly and individually – at home perhaps, if facilities are available. Everything on this site is free although users are invited to donate to hosting costs.
  • Mathster: Mathster, created by three British secondary school maths teachers, is more sophisticated and therefore more expensive at £390 per year for a secondary school – after a month’s free trial. It’s a complete system which you can access on any sort of device including PCs, tablets, whiteboards and so on. First there are 15,000 randomised questions you can use for assessment. You can also devise your own worksheets, set and mark online work and save the results direct to your digital mark book. Students can have partial access too and there are maths games and the like for them to engage with. Teachers who have used it seem to speak highly of Mathster which, was at least, devised by people who know what maths teachers need to make their work easier.
  • This is Not a Maths Book: Finally, I look to a different sort of resource. Many young people are frightened of maths. The reasons are many and various but somehow we have to deal with it. Anna Weltman’s This is Not a Maths Book is styled as a smart art activity book and it capitalises on the current craze for colouring in. The reader/user is invited to play with shapes and designs by, for instance, making a 3D drawing on graph paper, creating a puzzle based on squares or experimenting with tesselation. It’s made to seem attractive and it’s fun. But it’s mathematically ingenious and would work well as part of a maths lesson. It is one of those activity books which will ensure the person who uses it is discreetly educated as well as entertained. Unsurprisingly this book won the 2016 ALCS Education Writers’ Award as well as being an education winner in the British Book Design and Production Awards. I suspect my lateral thinking maths teacher colleague would have snapped it up.


  • Susan Elkin, a former teacher, is a writer and author specialising in education and the arts.

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