Why is it socially acceptable to be ‘bad at maths’?

Dr John Hind, Principal at Dame Allan’s Schools, tries to solve the puzzle of why a lack of mathematical aptitude is acceptable

The recent publicity given to the Schools Minister’s unwillingness to demonstrate his knowledge of times tables on national radio left me pondering a question frequently posed; it was perhaps best outlined by Kowson’s reflection in his 2013 Times Educational Supplement article: “We hear ‘I can’t do maths’ so often it doesn’t seem a strange thing to say.”

The belief, reported by Epstein and his collaborators (and, like Kowson, reported in National Numeracy’s paper on ‘Attitudes Towards Maths’) that ‘Maths is seen as the remit of ‘mad scientists’, ‘nerdy’ boys, and the socially inept’ will win little favour amongst my mathematical colleagues and, indeed, seems little more than an attempt to find excuses for our own failings.

And I must confess to form on this issue myself: I have frequently said that I was happy to pass my O Level Maths exam with a B grade and discontinue my study of the subject. Whilst not quite glorying in a weakness, I have certainly not tried to hide it in the way that I might, perhaps, have hidden an ability to draw, or play a musical instrument.

Should this matter? Well yes, according to National Numeracy, who quote Pro Bono Economics 2014 view that ‘low adult numeracy’ costs the UK the equivalent of 1.3 per cent of GDP a year.

But none of this answers the question of why we can accept ‘being bad at maths’. Perhaps the answer lies in part in our teaching of the subject?

Of course, much depends on how ‘low numeracy’ is defined and delivered. The revised GCSE syllabus should help in this regard, requiring as it does a higher level of basic numeracy skills in order to tackle more complex questions than those of its predecessor.  

The focus earlier in a child’s school career on the learning of times tables seems a further step in the right direction, as they are the building block of so much essential mathematical knowledge – even when answers are readily available courtesy of one’s mobile phone.

Recent correspondence in The Times pointed to the effectiveness of rote learning of tables by song in Japanese schools and, in so doing, highlighted the social significance given to Maths in many South East Asian cultures.

There are dangers for us here: the success of such countries in the PISA tables has encouraged in the UK a desire to push mathematics education in order to compete with them.

However, we should recognise that there is amongst educators in South East Asia a desire to replicate the individualism and creativity of parts of our traditional curriculum too; if we rush headlong into a maths heavy curriculum, we risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

We should also recognise that, beyond a good standard of basic numeracy, maths becomes a discipline in its own right – vital in support of many subjects, but of no greater value in and of itself than other subjects such as the study of languages, literature or history.

But none of this answers the question of why we can accept ‘being bad at maths’. Perhaps the answer lies in part in our teaching of the subject?

Current thinking on ‘growth mindset’ encourages us as teachers to believe that all pupils are capable of improving their work. This may be more difficult to sustain in a discipline where answers are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but an effective maths teacher will find ways to work around problems with pupils until they do find a way of reaching the answer.

The secret of good teaching lies as much, then, in the process as in the outcome. A proper knowledge of how each individual pupil approaches the subject is therefore vital, and also lies behind excellent results such as those which saw over 90 per cent of Dame Allan’s boys secure A* or A grade passes in the summer IGCSE maths examinations of 2016.

We also believe that our diamond model helps in this regard; traditionally girls tend to lack confidence in maths and are less willing than boys to speculate on possible solutions without the reassurance that their answers will be correct.

That quality of keeping going in the face of difficulty is vital when studying maths and, ultimately, is what makes success so rewarding

In girls-only classes confidence can be built up, whilst the boys can focus not only on working out solutions, but also on presenting them clearly and neatly. In both schools, nurturing the belief that success is possible – making the statement “I can’t do maths” as unlikely as “I cannot write a sentence” – is central to our success.

And of course, success in maths relies on learning as much as teaching and on our attitudes to what we study. “I can’t do maths” has, at its heart, Homeric philosophy of the modern, rather than the ancient world – “If at first you don’t succeed, give up” in the words of Mr Simpson.

Resilience has been much spoken of as an educational goal in recent years and has, indeed, been a whole school target for us at Dame Allan’s. That quality of keeping going in the face of difficulty is vital when studying maths and, ultimately, is what makes success so rewarding.

If we stick to our strengths and never try to develop our weaknesses, we will rarely experience the pleasure that comes from meeting a challenge head on and defeating it.

Being ‘bad at maths’ really is then a wake up call to us all to step out of our comfort zone and meet a challenge which ultimately will make us better, more rounded, citizens.    


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