Maths and me

When I was in school Maths was my favourite subject. That was in the eighties when the teaching of Maths only involved numbers and formulas. I was doing very well and that was giving me the motivation to try harder. I was getting satisfaction from my achievements and could see the magic in Maths.

Needless to say that in a class of 35 students, I was the exception.  I was so excited about Maths that was oblivious to the other children’s feelings about the subject, … and adults for that matter. For parents were teriffied of Maths as well.

Most of my friends hated Maths. My best friend could not see how they related to real life, so she simply did not care. She was a girl after all, and we all knew at the time that  girls do not do well at Maths. Other friends found it hard, boring and dry and they demonstrated negative attitudes towards the subject. But that was ok as well. We also knew that only exceptionally clever people can do Maths.

(source Flickr, Some rights reserved by Sean MacEntee)
(source Flickr, some rights reserved by Sean MacEntee)

Twenty five odd years ago, it was ok not to be good at Maths. Only a few children were expected to perform well. This is what teachers, students and parents believed. In other words a blend of stereotypes was in the air and you just could not get away. I am still puzzled at how I escaped this mindset.

Back then people believed that you could either be good at numbers and calculations or you simply could not. If you could do well at Maths or to put it differently if you had the gift of Maths, then it was inevitable that you would perform well. The notion of putting the effort, working hard, practicing and developing your skills was not applied to the learning of Maths.

At the time there was little research about how children learn. The prevailing belief was that only few people can do Maths. The rest will become Maths illiterate.

Fast forward to the present day and little has changed. The students of the eighties are the parents of 2013. Inevitably, they  have been carrying their lack of confidence and negative attitudes towards Maths for so long that they simply cannot let go.  The majority of them had a terrible time with Maths. So the resilience of the stereotypical image of Maths should not come as a surprise.

As a parent and educational professional interacting with other parents I see this all the time. It still strikes me as odd that people are happy to declare that they do not understand Maths or they cannot do basic calculations, while at the same time would be embarrassed to make an equal statement about not being able to read or write.

But now we know that everybody (regardless of their sex, ethnic origing and socioeconomic status) has the potential to do well at Maths. All it takes is gifted teachers, engaging lessons and above all parents that regardless of their own experience in school put a positive spin on Maths and encourage their children to put the effort to do well.

How was it for you? Did you like Maths at school or was it a traumatic experience? Please share and I will collate your views in a subsequent post.


4 thoughts on “Maths and me”

  1. Absolutely HATED Maths, when I was at primary school !!! I can still remember the floods of tears I had to shed in order to be able to memorise my times’ tables and the endless hours I spent trying to understand why 134+879 is the same as 879+134, but 879-134 is not the same as 134-879. Looking back at these now, I can laugh at my “stupidity”, but the feeling of sheer terror I had every time it was Maths hour in Primary school is still etched deep in my mind !!!

    In my case, I didn’t have the “she-is-a-girl-so-it’s-ok-not-to-understand-maths” stereotype, but being top of my class in everything else, it was unfathomable to teachers and my parents alike that I couldn’t understand Maths. I had to live up to the “she’s-top-in-everything-else-so-she’s-got-to-be-good-at-maths-too” stereotype, hence the terror and tears and the really bad and stressful time.

    All these until I was lucky to have the BEST TEACHER in the world in Year 6, who was able to teach me (and the rest of the class, of course) Maths using real-life examples and made Maths’ hour the funnest hour in the school day. Not being overly religious, I honestly DID feel like the Holy Ghost Revelation was happening to me, as I could actually “feel” my brain opening and all this new stuff being poured inside it !!! I was able to understand in a year what I hadn’t understood all previous 5 years ! Not only that, but I was actually finally able to think in a mathematical way, to see and apply Maths in everyday life and move on in my further educational road without the knot in the stomach that Maths used to cause me. I am eternally grateful to that teacher and even now – 25+ years later – I always go to visit him, when we go back home !

    Gifted teachers are so rare, but when one of them comes across your life, it does change it for ever !

  2. It’s fair to say that for me Maths didn’t come naturally either. It was & still is to some extent, something that requires conscious attention, whereas English, Art & the Humanities seemed to just flow. I recall dreading whenever our class stood up in primary school during a times table lesson & only sat down once questions had been answered correctly. It highlighted in front of my peers that I was average, if not below average in maths.

    When given the time to cogitate over maths I could often get there; but under pressure, answers eluded me. Stress inhibits cognitive thought processes anyway, so I was in hindsight, destined to struggle once I had decided that maths was my bogey subject (which I think by then I already had established).

    The same feelings washed over me when I moved to a new primary school & was faced with a maths test every single morning. Anyone else remember the series called ‘8 a day’? (Or they were a lower or higher number depending on the year group you were in). Starting the day with what I knew was my weakest subject meant I learned to dislike the first hour of school! Maths signified stress for me whereas I got lost & utterly absorbed with drawing, painting, writing & reading. I believe my brain is just more wired for that kind of stuff so I can slip into unconsious bliss to perform those tasks whereas maths requires my conscious brain & that requires far more concerted effort (not that I am averse to effort of course!)

    I don’t recall having any extra help with maths tutoring in primary school but neither do I register there being any overt sexism about my expected ability as a girl either. I grew up with 3 older brothers & as far as I recall, none of us were that over enthralled with the subject of maths, albeit one of them went on to work in auditing & financial roles. I do remember my mum saying that she was ‘never any good at maths’ & to some extent this could have influenced by own self-confidence in the subject. I would argue this point with myself though because my mum also claimed to be ‘useless at art’ & yet it proved to be a subject I excelled in. So was it really nurture or nature my lack of maths confidence?

    My memory of maths in secondary school is more positive however because it is actually the one subject that I made the most surprising progress with. By this I mean in terms of starting in Set 7 when I began my G.C.S.Es and improving enough to move up to Set 3 & be eligible to aim for a ‘C’ grade which I did attain! I am very proud of my C grade in maths because it signifies that rather than give up & succumb to my failings, I persisted & found some positives in the subject. In the latter years of school I discovered I actually enjoyed the pattern aspects of maths. I am a voracious pattern finder & pun maker with words & so think that to some extent I was able to link in some common ground with maths in the excitement of discovering or making sense of patterns in sets of numbers. It surprised me more than anyone to find myself enjoying the detective work in it but I did. So whereas I think getting the basics down I found laborious & tedious & hard, once I was able & more equipped to engage my creative side with the topic, I found my maths niche (if there is such a thing!)

    I am a huge advocate of playing to strengths & focusing on the postives in life rather than the negatives hence I am more keen on finding the positives in maths to be exploited rather than the negatives to be fixed. Once I found a strength I could relate to maths it became much less of a scary place to explore.

    Maybe if maths had been marketed & taught in a more visually appealing & interactive manner than the often ‘by rote’ methodology, I think I would have perhaps have engaged with it much earlier on with a greater confidence. Who knows? The fact is though, one child’s learning style can be very different from the next & so I do feel more tailored teaching approaches (to suit an individual’s representational systems i.e Visual, Auditory, Kinaesthetic, Olfactory, Gustatory) would benefit children across all subjects, not just the ones they struggle with. How logistically practical it is to deliver such a thing within the already stretched confines of education is another matter however.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience Lorna. Most of the people I have talked with have similar experiences. There is such beauty in Maths and is such a visual subject (you say you loved finding patterns), that is a shame the teaching is still focused on formulas and equations. So all the creativity is taken away and pupils are not encouraged to think conceptually but rather stick to formulas and prescriptive strategies.

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