How many times have you heard people say “I’m not good at maths”? Perhaps you’ve said it yourself. Often people make the statement with pride, almost implying it’s ‘cool’ to be bad at maths. Imagine if the same number of people claimed “I’m not good at reading”. I don’t think it would be deemed socially acceptable – in fact, most people would be embarrassed to make that claim. So why is it okay to by openly negative about mathematics? Why do so many in the media openly claim to dislike mathematics, and why is mathematics seen as a domain only accessible to an elite group of ‘smart’ people? Research has proven humans are born numerate, so what happens in those few years when children are in school to make them hate maths?
Firstly, we need to look at what happens in the home. Parents need to think carefully about how they talk to their children about mathematics. Regardless of how they experienced school mathematics and how they perceive mathematics, claims like “I was never good at maths when I was at school” are not helpful. Children notice. Molly, a Year 6 participant in my PhD study, made this comment when asked about what her family think about mathematics: “My mum doesn’t really like me asking her because she thinks she doesn’t have a maths brain. She thinks that she’s got more of an English brain than anything else.” Not surprisingly, Molly was not the only child who made that kind of comment.
Parents’ negative attitudes or beliefs do have the potential to negatively influence children, particularly when not having a ‘maths brain’ can be used as an excuse for opting out of mathematics in the senior years of schooling. Evidence of this influence on children’s thinking can be seen in this quote, where Kristie, another participant, was describing her friends’ attitudes towards mathematics: “Maybe some just don’t enjoy it the way I do, they just think maybe it’s not their subject. They might enjoy English.”
So what can parents do to promote positive attitudes towards mathematics? Above all, they should never make negative comments about the subject. If you are a parent and you are having difficulty with helping your child, seek help. In the primary years, many schools are happy to provide parent workshops to help parents understand new teaching methods. Workshops could also be held to help parents ‘brush up’ on their own mathematics skills. If your child is in secondary school and the mathematics they are learning requires more than a quick revision, don’t panic. It’s okay to say “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember how to do that” – try and find a way to assist your child in finding an explanation, whether it is by seeking help online, encouraging them to seek help from their teacher, or, if required, finding an appropriate tutor who may be able to provide some remediation. It’s better to seek help early.
One of the challenges with mathematics is that the concepts are hierarchical. That is, if children don’t don’t develop a deep understanding of foundational topics such as place value, gaps in learning begin to occur. When mathematics becomes more complex, children who struggle with the foundations of mathematics cannot keep up with their peers and fall behind, often leading to negative attitudes, poor self-efficacy, and disengagement.
And now we turn to the classroom. What can teachers do to stop the “I’m not good at maths” comments from perpetuating a fear of mathematics? Firstly, talking to parents about this issue needs to be a priority. Next, think about how you can promote positive attitudes – I’ve written much about engagement and mathematics and there are lots of great teaching and learning ideas on this website and elsewhere. Another comment that we often hear is “when an I ever going to use this?”. It’s a fact that there is mathematics that some of us will never use once we leave school. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t learn it – if we don’t we may be minimising future opportunities. Professor Edward Frenkel (one of my mathematical heroes) claims that school mathematics is often not presented in a way that highlights the connections to our daily lives (check out his video on YouTube). We don’t always have to understand the complex mathematics that lies beneath Facebook, online shopping, traffic systems, etc., but we do need to be aware that mathematics plays a critical role in many aspects of our daily lives, regardless of what we do or where we are from.
Finally, I strongly believe we need to stop allowing those around us, in our lives and in the media, to make such negative statements about mathematics – if we don’t take a stand things will never change, and it’s definitely time for a positive change. Start your school week with this statement: “I love maths!” Feels good, doesn’t it?