“I think maths must be dull,” Kate Winslet says to Michael Shannon who plays a mathematician in the 2008 movie Revolutionary Road. It is a narrative that seems to have stuck and one that many pass children hear from their parents – particularly their mothers, who were possibly not encouraged in this direction as students. Maths is hard or dull. Or both.
But that is not the only reason a Cambridge University study has come up with research this year showing students generally feel maths is harder than other subjects; so hard in fact that many respond to it with rage, despair and in some cases tears and breathlessness, though it does have a role to play.
The two main factors exacerbating maths anxiety among students are apparently parental pressure and confusing teaching methods.
Of course, parents want their children to do well at maths as many job opportunities require a certain level of ability. In fact, a recent UK poll found that 43% of parents wish they had concentrated more on maths at a younger age themselves. But pressure only triggers the anxiety that leads to the mental block.
According to a similar survey of student anxiety carried out in Spain in 2015 by Granada university, six out of 10 students were often blocked when it came to solving a maths problem, which, in turn, affected their choice of career – attracting them to areas that sidestepped the problem altogether.
But is maths really doomed to be the subject everybody loves to hate?
At King’s the approach, as in all subjects, has been to make the abstract as tangible as possible and maths is nothing if not abstract, particularly in its more advanced form. “When children see maths in the real-world, they realise the relevance of it. I often start off a new topic by investigating real-world examples, before moving into the more abstract,” says Luke Tamblyn who teaches primary maths in King’s Soto de Viñuelas. “I find any opportunity to bring something that the children can associate with from their own world into maths. For example, I might design a virtual 3D video game to teach area and perimeter, or use Pokemon cards as number generators.”
Meanwhile, Cathy Kong, Head of the Secondary Maths Department in Soto de Viñuelas, says that if the children can get their minds around it, this is a subject that will set them in good stead, whatever they go on to study.
“Maths is good for everything, it is everywhere and will never be disrespected. Maths students are seen to have good analytical and problem-solving skills, which are transferable and applicable to the workplace and elsewhere. Maths is hugely enjoyable, satisfying and fun, it promotes curiosity, provides challenge and is addictive, my students love it and so do I!”
Both Luke and Cathy agree that making mistakes in maths is part of the learning process and it is very important not to make the student feel that a mistake is the end of the world.
“Mistakes are seen as evidence of learning,” says Luke. “If children make mistakes, they must self-reflect and evaluate what they are doing. Mistakes in maths should be somewhat celebrated as part of the scaffolding to the overall learning goal.”
As a spokesperson for the UK Department for Education said in response to the University of Cambridge findings, “A confident grasp of mathematics at a young age provides the building blocks of numbers and problem solving that can help young people develop the knowledge and skills they need to secure a good job and succeed in whatever path they choose later in life. Maths is also increasingly important as the world becomes more automated – as machines speak the language of maths.”