‘I was no good at mathematics so Sam probably isn’t going to be any good either.’
Throughout my career, I’ve heard this countless times at parents’ evenings. At first it surprised and saddened me, but as time went on, I became more prepared for it. I now respond to such comments by suggesting that the Sams of this world haven’t yet had an opportunity to develop their skills and their parents should talk about numbers and shapes whenever they can at home.
The usual response is that they wouldn’t know where to start. Many parents say they can help with reading, but not maths. I suggest some possibilities – talking about quantities in the kitchen, looking for shapes, times and distances on the way into school – but many of my suggestions seem to fall on deaf ears. Maths anxiety runs deep in our society.
As a maths teacher, it’s probably no surprise that I love maths so, for the past 16 years, it’s been my mission to change this “can’t do” attitude. I take every opportunity to tell my students about brain plasticity and that they can improve their understanding of maths – and that, in fact, with effort and practice we can all improve in anything.
I tell them I wasn’t ‘a natural’ at maths, but moulded my brain to think mathematically through card games, darts and puzzles. I’ve also been careful to make sure they know they can make mistakes – they are happier to give it a go and not worry if they feel confident that having the wrong answer isn’t a problem.
I also try to practise what I preach. If I don’t know a solution I am honest with them, say I don’t know and then work out how to solve it. I remember the first time I tried to solve the four fours problem. This is an exercise where you use the integer 4 exactly four times to create a calculation that totals zero to 20. Nobody in the class could make 19 – not even me. One of my students clocked this so I worked alongside them to find the answer. A few minutes later I realised the solution, gave a clue and one of them got it.
But it often feels as though moments like these are few and far between. So I was thrilled when I received a note from one of my students recently. They started by saying I had helped them love maths, which I was delighted about. It was the last part that really stood out, however. ‘The lessons you have taught me have made me realise that I can do well in maths,’ they wrote. ‘But they have also motivated me in all my other subjects, my sport and everything I do in life.’
When Edward* first came into my class he had been a lower attainer. One of his teachers felt that he showed some potential, however, so he was given the opportunity to move up. At first, he was in awe of students and his automatic reaction was, ‘I can't do maths, this is too hard, I can't answer as many questions as the others.’
My response was to say "you can't yet” and, slowly but surely, he took that outlook on. He started to ask more questions, do extra work and became more confident about not knowing something straight away. He saw that practice and effort brought him progress both in maths and in sport, which he enjoyed but had not excelled in.
That’s the crux of maths anxiety for me as a professional. It’s not just about teaching children maths – it is also creating a belief that they can learn and that learning will improve their life experience.
Our society needs people who can think and solve problems effectively. At the very least, we need people to be able to reason and judge for themselves whether a message from a computer is fake or true. Maths holds a beauty for me, but even if you don’t feel that, its ability to develop thinkers with clear communication skills is really valuable.
But much more than that, maths anxiety is a sign of a fear of failure, and we really need to help our young people to develop resilience. Maths, with its focus on problems and solutions, can help us to do this. Seeing the results of my many hours spent explaining that our brain is an amazing organ was brilliant, but knowing this goes beyond my subject has made me even more dedicated to the cause.
* All names have been changed.
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