July 3, 2020

Hopeful and positive towards maths?


Why do so many people in the UK fear maths? It’s a strong word to use, but going on my experience as a classroom teacher and personal tutor, it’s an accurate description of the feelings of many children, young people and adults.

This matters, because maths isn’t some niche subject that you’ll only use if you want a career in academic research. It matters because maths is one of the most important ways we talk about and make sense of the world around us: prices, measurements for DIY, graphs in the news, loan interest rates and much more.

The arrival of Covid-19 has exposed us to maths in abundance. Besides some very large and sadly increasing numbers of those affected by the illness, there are surveys and estimates and predictions – all using data in different ways. There are the billions of pounds in government support (how many zeroes is that?),  the percentage of all workers who have been furloughed and the much-discussed practical implications of keeping a 2-metre social distance.

But most prominent of all is perhaps the R-number, which is a measure of how much “spreading opportunity” we are giving the virus. The R is an estimate of how many people will catch the virus from one infected person. The message has gone out loud and clear: to ensure that the virus eventually stops spreading, the R must be below 1.

Why is this? It’s because multiplying doesn’t always make a number bigger. If I multiply 500 by 1.1, I get 550. But if I multiply 500 by 0.9, I get 450. I have shrunk the number I started with, because my multiplier was a number less than 1.

Everyone needs a basic understanding of the key elements of maths: number, shape, measure and data. In my teaching, I see children and young people who have already put maths into the “too difficult” category, perhaps because their own parents have done the same. With adults I encounter those same youngsters a few years later, but with a renewed determination to tackle their maths “skeleton in the cupboard”.

But isn’t it just down to ability? Some people have it, others don’t. While not everyone has the same ability, I have seen the difference made by these two magic ingredients:

  • Motivation – creating persistence and determination
  • Personalised teaching that targets specific areas of weakness and presents a number of approaches until one “hits the spot”.

Once these two are in place, success will follow. Perhaps on a very small scale; but enough to create hope that this time, things can be different. Confidence rises; hard work pays off; there is more success. And we find ourselves in a virtuous circle.

As a teacher, I love to share my enjoyment of maths with my students; but if a student can’t see a point to it and isn’t suitably motivated, then success will be patchy at best.

For young people and adults, further study and a good career are often significant motivators. It is a privilege to support someone who is focussed on their goal – and is willing to change how they do things, embrace new ways of working and practise continually in pursuit of it.

For younger children it can be hard to see that far ahead. Motivation for them often comes from enjoying the lessons and the interaction with their teacher.  It can also be very helpful when parents show how much maths is a part of life: in the supermarket, understanding the weather forecast, buying paint for a task at home or calculating how long it will take to save up for something.

Time and again I have been amazed at the achievements of those who are truly motivated – the power of persistence and their commitment to practising new maths skills until they are thoroughly embedded. Whatever their starting point in maths, it is an absolute joy to teach and support such students, and a delight to see their grades improve until finally they achieve their qualification.

The importance of the second element, personalised teaching, can be seen in this quote from Jenny, a teenager who had been out of school for some time.

“The idea of sitting in a room doing maths was very scary. The teacher took the time to help me understand maths, then explained in different ways until I understood…This helps you to build confidence, helps you become hopeful and positive towards maths.”

That, for me as a teacher, is my motivation.