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Experts explain why hating maths has nothing to do with a lack of ability

Parents and guardians, especially those who harbour negative memories of class, have their part to play in promoting enthusiasm for the subject.

Mention the word maths and a lot of people will automatically groan, while stifling the urge to wail ‘it’s boring’. No doubt it’s a kneejerk reaction for those still haunted by the memory of sitting in double maths at school, glazed of eye, while the monotone voice of the teacher insists trigonometry is needed in everyday life.

It doesn’t matter however old you get, the negative experience in a maths class sticks. It also potentially impacts your own self-worth as well as your children’s, but why do so many of us continue to have such a severe dislike for the subject matter years on?

“We construct our self-identity with the experiences we have," says Dr Lee Randall, an educational psychologist, and the co-director of EdPsychEd.

"If we have negative experiences, where we think we’re bad at maths whenever it’s mentioned, those memories of feeling stupid, or not very good, or bored, start to resurface.

"That can make adults very negative and say negative things about maths, which then rubs off on children."

Dr Lee Randall (EdPsychEd)

Of course, our perception of maths is directly linked to the way we’re taught it in our formative years, and for many people the problem lies in the fact much of it seems pointless and irrelevant. “With English and reading and writing, it’s kind of immediately apparent why it’s useful," Dr Randall added. "We all talk to one another, there are signs everywhere, we get told stories, and children want to read stories to themselves. It means there are lots of hooks for literacy, and it’s quite straightforward to make it interesting and engaging for children.

"I think we have to work a little bit harder where maths is concerned. It should be interesting and engaging, but I think we lose our way with that in education.

“I think we do a lot of fairly concrete stuff when kids are very little and then we move quite quickly to being quite abstract. We also tell kids you need to learn this calculation or formula and how to do it, but not why.”

He also believes maths needs to be grounded in the real world and shown how it’s relevant to kids and the things they’re interested in.

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-------------------- “I mean more than what it means at the supermarket when you’re counting out the change. Kids should know how maths plays a part in coding for computer games, rockets to the moon and football analytics, so they can see it as a potential way into the industries.

"That provides a form of motivation, which is incredibly important in learning. When you’re motivated, you’re more likely to persevere when things aren’t going well or are difficult, and you’ll go that extra mile to keep learning.”

As he stresses, “things are hard right up until the point they’re not, and then children take off and fly”.

“This happens less in maths, which is very much based on prerequisites. It means children can be left behind as the maths gets more abstract and more complex, so by year seven you get swathes of kids in the lower set who just hate maths. What we need is a very significant focus on basic skills when kids are young to make sure it’s robust and then everything else becomes easier.” Educationalist Leon Hady, the founder of Guide Education, agrees.

Leon Hady turned a failing school into Ofsted "Outstanding"

“When students have gaps in their understanding, taking on newer information can often lead to overwhelm or ‘cognitive overload’ because students have to first have a solid understanding of the basics, and then have newer concepts slowly and carefully broken down and built upon these,’ he says.

“Also, the pressure to deliver the right answer in class when called upon or get a good score on a test can supersede the desire to understand, because the stakes are too high. In the end, the easy way out is to say, ‘I'm just no good at it’.”

One of the biggest factors to affect how children and teenagers feel about maths is how they feel about their own mathematical ability.

“A child or teenager who holds the false belief they ‘just can't do maths’ or feel as though they aren't very good at maths will inevitably harbour negative feelings towards the subject when they are asked to engage with it,” notes Hady who at 31 turned an inner-city failing school into Ofsted "outstanding".

“Often another consequence of this false belief is that students are then less likely to ask for support where they need it as the fear of feeling humiliated by their lack of understanding often leads to students simply choosing to disengage with the subject.”

Of course, the buck doesn’t rest solely at the teacher’s feet. Parents and guardians, especially those who harbour negative memories of maths class, have their part to play in promoting enthusiasm for the subject.

“When we’re growing up, our parents are our primary models of how to be an adult, and often people will say things or use an unguarded comment around their children and not realise how much they’re picking up on,” says Randall.

“In this instance, it might be ‘Oh I was awful at maths’, or ‘Maths is dead hard’ or ‘dead boring’, and those messages sink in.

“On the flipside, children who are constantly hearing maths spoken about in a positive light have a more positive perception of maths and therefore a more positive perception of their ability to improve and achieve at maths.’

So be conscious of what you’re saying, and what your children are hearing, “which is good general advice”, he adds.

“Flip the narrative to keep it positive. Say something like, ‘I could’ve been really good at maths; the problem was I wasn’t taught it very well’ or ‘I had a negative view of it and realise I’m better at it than I than I thought but didn’t put the effort in,’ and reinforce the idea that no matter where you start, you can get better if you keep going.”


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