April 19, 2023
Mindsets for Maths
By Dr Kathy Weston
This week I have been mulling over the well publicised statistic that over eight million adults across the UK possess numeracy skills below that of a nine year old child.
Now, I read that with a great deal of sympathy for the eight million because I have to be honest and say I wasn’t the most numerate of pupils, and this week’s headlines brought back some residual resentment about my own experiences of maths learning. I recall the tears that used to drip onto my homework page when trying to tell the time on clock faces, the page morphing into a seascape of blue ink and the feeling of just wanting to run away. As a young child, numbers didn’t make intuitive sense to me. In an attempt to solve the roadblocks in my head, during one homework, where I was unaccompanied by an adult, I used my dad’s calculator. It was amazing! You pumped a few numbers into this thing, pressed ‘equals’ and, voila, it told you the answer. At a young age, I didn’t see what was wrong with asking a machine to do the hard work for me! Needless to say, I was disciplined for doing so and I remember receiving a strongly worded parental lecture on ‘the perils of cheating’. Thereafter, I had a newfound ‘anti-maths mindset’; this subject after all kept getting me into trouble and made me feel bad about myself.
I still had to do GCSE maths years later, so how did that go? Well, it was only with the help and guidance of patient teachers and a wonderful university student who lived nearby, that a psychological breakthrough came. I recall my young neighbour’s weekly chats with me really helped. She was 21 and studying maths at university. She was asked by my parents to spend some time with me sharing her ‘love of numbers’.
I remember my new neighbour-tutor being puzzled that I couldn’t ‘get’ some of the mathematical concepts, but then she slowly went back to basics. She began to adapt her teaching to include little formulae that I could remember and easily apply, and gave me strategies to cope with the moments of struggle. She would repeat the beautifully hopeful words, “You are nearly there” or, “I know you’ll get there” and encouraged me to practise until I could recognise what each question was asking of me. Once I could do that, I could apply the strategy that would lead to the answer. Eventually, I felt like I had some tools in the toolbox to cope with the rising anxiety when I got to a particular question (particularly clock questions). Despite the prediction that I might earn an ‘F’ in my GCSE maths paper, reader, I got a ‘B’ in the end! I had been helped to overcome something called ‘maths anxiety’, undiagnosed in my case all those years ago, but considered a real phenomenon by researchers and teachers now. So when our Prime Minister refers to a national anti-maths mindset, I hear ‘maths anxiety’, so perhaps that needs to be the focus first.
Maths anxiety can range in severity from mild tension to an extreme fear of the subject and is recognised by psychologists as a clinical condition. This is not an honour bestowed on any other specific subject area! It is thought to affect approximately 11-17% of school-aged children, though this figure is likely to be conservative. It is not the same as dyscalculia, a mathematical learning disability, which is estimated to affect around 6% of primary-aged school children and characterised by a persistent difficulty in understanding numbers in a variety of ways. Children with dyscalculia may have problems seeing how numbers fit together, with counting and calculating, telling left from right, using mathematical symbols or concepts, reading a clock or working with money or coins. Ongoing difficulty with recalling simple maths facts from memory is a key hallmark of developmental dyscalculia. Dyscalculia can affect anyone, regardless of age or ability, and is not something that children will grow out of. Whilst we don’t yet understand the cause, people with dyscalculia do have some brain differences and it often runs in families. It often occurs in conjunction with dyslexia and also has high comorbidity with ADHD. If you’d like to learn more about dyscalculia, I’d advise checking out the ADD UP Toolkit produced by experts at the Institute of Education, which is freely available online.
Back to maths anxiety. Students affected by this tension around numbers often feel anxious when sitting down to study the subject (as per my story above) and in the case of these students, there is a negative relationship between maths anxiety and performance, meaning that the more nervous someone feels, the poorer their performance with manipulating numbers is likely to be, not only at school but also in everyday life.
Whilst we don’t all need to be fantastic mathematicians, fear around maths can lead to an avoidance of number related problems which isn’t restricted to the classroom. It can have serious implications for study and employment and may close doors to career choices in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). We’ve probably all heard someone say that they “just don’t have a maths brain”, or that they are “never going to get any better” at it. Perhaps it’s something you’ve thought about yourself? But is there any truth to it? What causes maths anxiety? How can not liking maths turn into, for a small number of people, a phobic reaction to the thought of it? And what can parents and teachers do to help?
Who is more likely than others to suffer from maths anxiety? What does the research say? What are the known risk factors?
First of all, it is worth noting that genetic factors can play a part; possibly up to 40% of maths anxiety can be explained by genetics. But contextual factors also have a role in this equation, especially the home and school environment. Reports indicate that socioeconomic status can be impactful. Students in the least deprived homes are 2.7 times more likely to attain a good grade in GCSE maths, and 2.5 times more likely to complete A-Level maths, compared to their more disadvantaged peers.
Similar reports have also suggested that females are more likely to opt out of maths and are underrepresented in maths subjects as they get older. This is not because girls are ‘worse’ than boys at maths. But research does suggest that girls are more likely to lack confidence and self-assurance with the subject. Insidious gender stereotypes may be at play here. A recent report by the Commission on Gender Stereotypes in Early Childhood describes how oversimplified generalisations about gender are ‘limitations [that] start early, hold many children back, and cause significant problems across society later in life’, citing findings that, by the tender age of six, gender stereotypes result in girls avoiding subjects they think require them to be “really, really smart”, something which may be linked to their lower participation in STEM subjects when they are older.
Another contributing factor is parents having too high expectations of a child’s maths ability. Experts believe that maths anxiety can hamper performance by diminishing the thinking power needed to perform maths-related tasks. As children progress through school, research tells us that motivational factors also play a role in the relationship between maths anxiety and performance. Work with adolescents has found that belief in their own mathematics ability, self-concept, and high interest in the subject may buffer some of the negative effects of maths anxiety. But it is important to note that even those who have strong maths skills may also experience maths anxiety. Experts emphasise the importance of maths is not about having a “math-head”, It is about training consistently and persistently. Sometimes some of us may need to train a lot harder than others, but everyone can learn and improve their skills.
As noted above, there are varying levels of maths anxiety, which can range from feeling mildly uncomfortable when thinking about or doing maths, to more severe responses which experts have likened to a phobic physiological reaction. In this case, the individual can experience an increase in heart rate, sweating and fear. For teachers, it is important to be mindful and sensitive of students’ responses during mathematics lessons. It is very common for students to complain or show reluctance about maths, but teachers should also pay attention to those who give up quickly on problems or get incredibly anxious when tackling something that demands numeracy skills. This avoidant behaviour may be typical of someone with maths anxiety.
We need to model the attitudes we wish to see in our children. If we come across as anxious about maths or don’t model a positive attitude, research shows this can contribute to our children feeling the same way. If you are a teacher and don’t enjoy teaching maths, or don’t feel confident doing it, this can be problematic. We need to gently reflect on the messages that we are conveying to the class. When working with children and young people, we need to focus more on the journey of how we arrive at the final answer in maths, as opposed to just focusing on whether the answer is simply right or wrong. While this is a straightforward way to provide feedback, focusing on where the student may have gone wrong in their working out, or celebrating the fact they got to the end of the problem without giving up, is also important.
Changing our tone and language around how we discuss maths and maths-related subjects may also help reduce maths anxiety in our children and our students. As the Prime Minister pointed out on Monday, being bad at maths is often seen as something one can laugh off or make light of. Whilst it is fine to admit that you find maths difficult and need some additional help, we don’t want it to be accepted that you are just ‘bad at maths’ and nothing can be done about it. Teachers can play a powerful role in dispelling the misconception that, “I wasn’t born with a math brain, so I’m never going to be good at maths”, as this is absolutely not the case. We know that getting good at maths is a lot like learning to ride a bike. There may be a few stumbles and falls along the way, but you need to keep practising in order to improve.
Schools more widely can help change the discourse around maths, by making their students aware how important maths is in many of the subjects that students may aspire to study. Careers in medicine, science, engineering all require maths skill in some way, shape or form.
As parents, there is so much we can do to support our children and their teachers. We can keep an eye on our children when doing maths homework and watch out for their emotional responses to the material. Things can go either way for students when parents step in to help, so it is worth bearing that in mind. Some research has actually suggested that parental involvement in homework increases maths anxiety! But when we recently asked an expert about this, they said this finding relates more to parents also feeling anxious about math, which has a negative effect on their children.
I have to say that one of my proudest achievements as a parent is not passing on any anxiety or dislike of maths to my children. They both really enjoy the subject and I feel really pleased about that. Last week, I came across an old video of me doing some maths activities with them at home when they were in Year 3 and 5 and was amused to see how energetic and enthusiastic I sounded doing times tables on the trampoline and quizzing them about their number bonds with a sand timer (Tooled Up parents can watch this Weston classic by clicking on the ‘family maths’ video in the box below). Can I also say that my eldest seen in the video (then aged 9 and now 16), just got a 9 in his GCSE maths exam! Yes, I am extremely proud of this fact, so maybe that parental engagement in those early days did make a tangible difference!
Parents of toddlers and younger children can really enjoy embedding fun learning with numbers into everyday activities and to engage with their learning in ways that are really impactful.
When you are out and about or playing with your child, notice and enjoy numbers around you in everyday life. Look at house numbers when walking down the street, search for shapes in your environment, weigh things out in front of your child when cooking and ask them to help or count and sort different objects around the home. OECD research suggests that parents tend to only engage in maths activities at home once a week, compared to daily reading with their children. Working activities like this into everyday routines is something parents with young children should try to do more of where possible.
We are excited to tell you there is also an opportunity to engage with maths learning using a wonderful new, evidence-based app that our colleagues at UCL have co-designed with parents, called Maths@Home. It gives adults ideas of various activities that are designed to support young children’s mathematical development using resources easily available in and around the home; and includes 25 age-appropriate maths games (with four levels each) that are designed to encourage off-screen engagement between parent(s) and their children.
There is a lot of ongoing work which aims to promote maths learning and reduce maths anxiety in general. One such project looking at school-aged children and teens suggests that the most effective interventions are ones where emotional regulation strategies are provided, or cognitive support is involved. The Choking Under Pressure project, for example, showed that the introduction of ideas like mindfulness, expressive writing and training in problem solving strategies could be effective in reducing math anxiety. Researchers have also created a fantastic, free to access toolkit for parents and teachers, which can help identify children who have mathematical difficulties and provide tips on how to help and support them. For practical support, Number Champions is a small charity currently partnering with schools across London which uses games and other creative activities in one-to-one sessions with children aged six to eight to help them make sense of numbers and gain skills and confidence.
We can all stand to take the time to educate ourselves more on maths anxiety in order to help those around us, whether it is our children or our students. Professor Orly Rubinsten provides a fantastic overview video of the subject in under five minutes, which you can watch here. Further wonderful tips are contained in this brilliant online resource aimed at both parents and teachers.
Lastly, you will be pleased to note that even the corporate world is taking steps to get young people engaging with maths and building up their skills. Financial technology firms, such as XTX Markets, are creating schemes or ‘maths pipelines’, which will support young people to pursue advanced pathways in mathematics (degrees, PhDs, careers), especially under-represented and disadvantaged groups. It is all good. The future is exciting and a good grounding in maths means our children can really embrace a wider variety of opportunities that may come their way.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
If you are interested to discover more about maths anxiety, keep your eyes on the library, as we’ll be sharing our interview with mathematical learning difficulties expert, Dr Johan Korhonen, very soon. Tooled Up subscribers who’d like more tips on dealing with maths anxiety and ensuring that we don’t pass on our own worries about numbers to our children can watch our short video. To learn more about dyscalculia, why not watch our thought-provoking webinar with Dr Jo Van Herwegen, who outlines common myths and truths about the condition and explores the latest research evidence around mathematical learning difficulties.
Within our maths section, you’ll also find tips for helping younger children learn their times tables and a video packed full of innovative maths ideas to use at home. We’re currently working on a list of effective maths apps and resources, which will be in the library soon. Do you recommend any that work particularly well in your home? We’d love to hear from you with any ideas.
Stress and anxiety come in many guises, not just around maths. As it’s currently Stress Awareness Month, we’re pleased to be hosting some live events over the next couple of weeks to help with stress management. On April 26th, we’d like to invite Tooled Up school staff to a lunchtime wellbeing hour with teacher and wellbeing coach Ola Elkhatib, who’ll be sharing a range of evidence-based ideas designed to help you feel better, less anxious, less stressed and energised for the term ahead. On April 28th, we’re hosting a webinar with clinical psychologist, Dr Monica Thompson on stress management for busy parents. Both sessions are open for booking now.
If you’d like some immediate tips on coping with everyday stresses and anxieties, do check out the library. You might find our stress less activity and our spinning plates idea useful. Why not print out the Family Domestic Planner too and see if it is helpful in dividing up domestic responsibilities during the working week? It’s also advisable to focus on the things that you can control, versus the things that you can’t. Our template might help and is also useful for children who need help to keep things in perspective. If you have teens approaching important exams, we have a whole section packed full of advice and tips which you can find here.
Lastly, our first-everOnline Autism Conference is just a couple of days away! If you’re interested in learning about great ways to support children and young people with autism, this is an event that you won’t want to miss, whether you are a parent, teacher, or caregiver. We already have 200 attendees from across our Tooled Up schools, so see you there!