I can’t do maths

Puzzled by probability, percentages and prime numbers? Professor Dame Celia Hoyles, Professor of Mathematics Education, examines why

A broken pencil sitting on a blue table

This article first appeared in issue 7 of Portico magazine, published October 2020.

Across most subjects, people recognise that they are not very good at something. However, studies have shown that in mathematics, a “can’t do” attitude is far more prevalent. A poll conducted by Ipsos MORI in 2018 found that more than a third of 15 to 24-year-olds felt anxious when shown a maths question.

So why do people think that they can’t do maths?

Abstraction

Part of the problem is the nature of the subject. Mathematics is symbolic. You start with numbers but once you proceed into algebra’s Xs and Ys, many people do not understand what on earth they are and why they’re useful. You must make that step into abstraction to understand that maths is about relationships.

In the process, it can be very easy for a maths teacher to confuse pupils with a board full of equations. It takes a confident pupil to admit to the class that they don’t understand what’s going on. A good teacher should say, “Don’t just learn this by heart, don’t just try and get the answer, try and see the why.”

The why is crucial in maths, otherwise it’s all a meaningless dance of symbols.

Precision

In maths, there is a right and a wrong answer. In most subjects, getting it wrong is usually a good building block to improving. But too often when this happens in maths, people don’t see their mistakes as a catalyst for learning but as a way of saying that they’re no good at it. As a teacher, it’s the worst thing to hear a pupil say, because it is as though they are writing themselves off. It’s not helpful for learning and it’s an easy way for a pupil to simply duck away from the subject.

Competition

Despite being quite successful in maths, I can still feel that I’m not very good at it. That’s another thing about the subject: you can always find somebody who is much better at it than you. It’s made more apparent by the precision and manipulations involved.

I still recall a student in my class who was always one step ahead of the lecturer. I feared I could never be that good but my tutors persisted. Maths’ intellectual hierarchy can make you think that you can’t do it.

Acceleration

Being quick at maths is overvalued in schools. If you’re struggling to keep up, you should be able to go away and think the problem through or work it out in a group of your peers. It’s not a race to see who gets there first; this just adds anxiety.

In 2018, I spoke at the Maths Anxiety Trust conference. I began by rattling off a few quick maths questions. Although the audience was full of expert educators, you could still feel their stress in the room.

This article first appeared in issue 7 of Portico magazine, published October 2020.

Across most subjects, people recognise that they are not very good at something. However, studies have shown that in mathematics, a “can’t do” attitude is far more prevalent. A poll conducted by Ipsos MORI in 2018 found that more than a third of 15 to 24-year-olds felt anxious when shown a maths question.

So why do people think that they can’t do maths?

Abstraction

Part of the problem is the nature of the subject. Mathematics is symbolic. You start with numbers but once you proceed into algebra’s Xs and Ys, many people do not understand what on earth they are and why they’re useful. You must make that step into abstraction to understand that maths is about relationships.

In the process, it can be very easy for a maths teacher to confuse pupils with a board full of equations. It takes a confident pupil to admit to the class that they don’t understand what’s going on. A good teacher should say, “Don’t just learn this by heart, don’t just try and get the answer, try and see the why.”

The why is crucial in maths, otherwise it’s all a meaningless dance of symbols.

Precision

In maths, there is a right and a wrong answer. In most subjects, getting it wrong is usually a good building block to improving. But too often when this happens in maths, people don’t see their mistakes as a catalyst for learning but as a way of saying that they’re no good at it. As a teacher, it’s the worst thing to hear a pupil say, because it is as though they are writing themselves off. It’s not helpful for learning and it’s an easy way for a pupil to simply duck away from the subject.

Competition

Despite being quite successful in maths, I can still feel that I’m not very good at it. That’s another thing about the subject: you can always find somebody who is much better at it than you. It’s made more apparent by the precision and manipulations involved.

I still recall a student in my class who was always one step ahead of the lecturer. I feared I could never be that good but my tutors persisted. Maths’ intellectual hierarchy can make you think that you can’t do it.

Acceleration

Being quick at maths is overvalued in schools. If you’re struggling to keep up, you should be able to go away and think the problem through or work it out in a group of your peers. It’s not a race to see who gets there first; this just adds anxiety.

In 2018, I spoke at the Maths Anxiety Trust conference. I began by rattling off a few quick maths questions. Although the audience was full of expert educators, you could still feel their stress in the room.

This article first appeared in issue 7 of Portico magazine, published October 2020.

Across most subjects, people recognise that they are not very good at something. However, studies have shown that in mathematics, a “can’t do” attitude is far more prevalent. A poll conducted by Ipsos MORI in 2018 found that more than a third of 15 to 24-year-olds felt anxious when shown a maths question.

So why do people think that they can’t do maths?

Abstraction

Part of the problem is the nature of the subject. Mathematics is symbolic. You start with numbers but once you proceed into algebra’s Xs and Ys, many people do not understand what on earth they are and why they’re useful. You must make that step into abstraction to understand that maths is about relationships.

In the process, it can be very easy for a maths teacher to confuse pupils with a board full of equations. It takes a confident pupil to admit to the class that they don’t understand what’s going on. A good teacher should say, “Don’t just learn this by heart, don’t just try and get the answer, try and see the why.”

The why is crucial in maths, otherwise it’s all a meaningless dance of symbols.

Precision

In maths, there is a right and a wrong answer. In most subjects, getting it wrong is usually a good building block to improving. But too often when this happens in maths, people don’t see their mistakes as a catalyst for learning but as a way of saying that they’re no good at it. As a teacher, it’s the worst thing to hear a pupil say, because it is as though they are writing themselves off. It’s not helpful for learning and it’s an easy way for a pupil to simply duck away from the subject.

Competition

Despite being quite successful in maths, I can still feel that I’m not very good at it. That’s another thing about the subject: you can always find somebody who is much better at it than you. It’s made more apparent by the precision and manipulations involved.

I still recall a student in my class who was always one step ahead of the lecturer. I feared I could never be that good but my tutors persisted. Maths’ intellectual hierarchy can make you think that you can’t do it.

Acceleration

Being quick at maths is overvalued in schools. If you’re struggling to keep up, you should be able to go away and think the problem through or work it out in a group of your peers. It’s not a race to see who gets there first; this just adds anxiety.

In 2018, I spoke at the Maths Anxiety Trust conference. I began by rattling off a few quick maths questions. Although the audience was full of expert educators, you could still feel their stress in the room.

A chair with graffiti on it

Solution

When I started my PhD, the discovery of the depths of maths anxiety in pupils upset me. I started thinking about computer programming as a means to engage children in maths, but one which, crucially, would provide feedback and avoid them being shown up in the classroom.

I began experimenting with Scratch, a block-based computer language using visualisation and manipulation that children find engaging. We adopted its capabilities as a way to get kids to understand things like shapes in geometry and variables in algebra, and the project was rolled out to 111 primary schools.

During lockdown, I’ve been working on upgrading Scratch Maths and making it available to the wider population.

Pseudo maths

At UCL we did a study, ‘Mathematical skills in the workplace’, which examined financial and manufacturing businesses to ascertain the maths skills employees needed to be competent. At one site, I spotted a productivity graph that management had created to encourage production targets, and displayed around the building. The only problem was that no one knew what the graph meant! It was like expensive wallpaper.

Fundamentally, it’s a good idea to try and communicate your company’s progress using maths, but it has to be clear and understandable. A topical example is the COVID-19 data, the so-called R value (the average number of people an infected person will pass the virus on to), and the concept of “flattening the curve”.

Graphs are there to give validity and precision, but they can have an alienating effect if you’ve no idea what’s going on. We call this pseudo maths.

Perception

In this research, we met managers who did complicated things with eigenvalues and eigenvectors yet said that they didn’t do maths. Because it was part of their practice, they didn’t perceive it as such.

Mathematical inability is deeply rooted, even in business. We’d already had difficulty getting access to their premises because they feared academics asking them maths questions.

It’s a similar story at home with people working out their bills or getting to grips with a loan. They’re doing maths but if you were to define it that way, they would maintain that they can’t do it.

Isn’t it strange that if something’s routine and everyday, then somehow it cannot really be maths? Meanwhile, most people can do arithmetic and probably some geometry too. My advice is to find out what you can do and then build on that.

Discover more about Scratch Maths

Photography Getty Images, Stocksy

This article first appeared in issue 7 of Portico magazine, published October 2020.

Solution

When I started my PhD, the discovery of the depths of maths anxiety in pupils upset me. I started thinking about computer programming as a means to engage children in maths, but one which, crucially, would provide feedback and avoid them being shown up in the classroom.

I began experimenting with Scratch, a block-based computer language using visualisation and manipulation that children find engaging. We adopted its capabilities as a way to get kids to understand things like shapes in geometry and variables in algebra, and the project was rolled out to 111 primary schools.

During lockdown, I’ve been working on upgrading Scratch Maths and making it available to the wider population.

Pseudo maths

At UCL we did a study, ‘Mathematical skills in the workplace’, which examined financial and manufacturing businesses to ascertain the maths skills employees needed to be competent. At one site, I spotted a productivity graph that management had created to encourage production targets, and displayed around the building. The only problem was that no one knew what the graph meant! It was like expensive wallpaper.

Fundamentally, it’s a good idea to try and communicate your company’s progress using maths, but it has to be clear and understandable. A topical example is the COVID-19 data, the so-called R value (the average number of people an infected person will pass the virus on to), and the concept of “flattening the curve”.

Graphs are there to give validity and precision, but they can have an alienating effect if you’ve no idea what’s going on. We call this pseudo maths.

Perception

In this research, we met managers who did complicated things with eigenvalues and eigenvectors yet said that they didn’t do maths. Because it was part of their practice, they didn’t perceive it as such.

Mathematical inability is deeply rooted, even in business. We’d already had difficulty getting access to their premises because they feared academics asking them maths questions.

It’s a similar story at home with people working out their bills or getting to grips with a loan. They’re doing maths but if you were to define it that way, they would maintain that they can’t do it.

Isn’t it strange that if something’s routine and everyday, then somehow it cannot really be maths? Meanwhile, most people can do arithmetic and probably some geometry too. My advice is to find out what you can do and then build on that.

Discover more about Scratch Maths

Photography Getty Images, Stocksy

This article first appeared in issue 7 of Portico magazine, published October 2020.

Solution

When I started my PhD, the discovery of the depths of maths anxiety in pupils upset me. I started thinking about computer programming as a means to engage children in maths, but one which, crucially, would provide feedback and avoid them being shown up in the classroom.

I began experimenting with Scratch, a block-based computer language using visualisation and manipulation that children find engaging. We adopted its capabilities as a way to get kids to understand things like shapes in geometry and variables in algebra, and the project was rolled out to 111 primary schools.

During lockdown, I’ve been working on upgrading Scratch Maths and making it available to the wider population.

Pseudo maths

At UCL we did a study, ‘Mathematical skills in the workplace’, which examined financial and manufacturing businesses to ascertain the maths skills employees needed to be competent. At one site, I spotted a productivity graph that management had created to encourage production targets, and displayed around the building. The only problem was that no one knew what the graph meant! It was like expensive wallpaper.

Fundamentally, it’s a good idea to try and communicate your company’s progress using maths, but it has to be clear and understandable. A topical example is the COVID-19 data, the so-called R value (the average number of people an infected person will pass the virus on to), and the concept of “flattening the curve”.

Graphs are there to give validity and precision, but they can have an alienating effect if you’ve no idea what’s going on. We call this pseudo maths.

Perception

In this research, we met managers who did complicated things with eigenvalues and eigenvectors yet said that they didn’t do maths. Because it was part of their practice, they didn’t perceive it as such.

Mathematical inability is deeply rooted, even in business. We’d already had difficulty getting access to their premises because they feared academics asking them maths questions.

It’s a similar story at home with people working out their bills or getting to grips with a loan. They’re doing maths but if you were to define it that way, they would maintain that they can’t do it.

Isn’t it strange that if something’s routine and everyday, then somehow it cannot really be maths? Meanwhile, most people can do arithmetic and probably some geometry too. My advice is to find out what you can do and then build on that.

Discover more about Scratch Maths

Photography Getty Images, Stocksy

This article first appeared in issue 7 of Portico magazine, published October 2020.