I was never good at Maths

I have loved Maths all my life and this led me to undertake an undergraduate degree in Applied Mathematics and subsequently a Masters in Financial Mathematics.  What has always amazed me is the reaction of people when I mention that Maths is what I have studied and/or lectured.  Generally the reaction is either “I loved Maths at school” or more normally “I was never good at Maths”.  Maybe it’s the same for other subjects but I don’t think so.  It’s almost like it’s a badge of honour for people which I find very disheartening.  There are a lot of people who struggle with English but I don’t think it’s the first thing that they lead with in a conversation.  I know that I am biased, in that Maths is where I’m at, so I’m keenly aware of others perceptions of it, but what I find most difficult is the social acceptability that people are ‘not good’ at Maths.

Maths is a subject that is studied by students in Ireland from preschool right up through school.  You would imagine, that a subject that forms a very strong basis of the school curriculum, would be something that people would be very proficient in by the time they leave school.  I am often shocked as a lecturer by the lack of understanding of what really are the basics of Maths topics.   Manipulations of basic algebraic formulae such as solving for x in 2(x+3) = -4x – 5 and performing calculations with fractions seem to cause students huge difficulties.  Even students who don’t have issues with these types of operations often struggle with being able to apply the concepts in straightforward applications.  And the ‘get out of jail’ card for many of these students is ‘I was never good at Maths’.

Of course then there are the students who are absolutely petrified of Maths.  In my ten years lecturing Maths, I have had more than a few students who are like rabbits in the headlights in Maths class.  The first few weeks are always touch and go as to whether they will stay or bolt. In discussions with many of these students over the years, I have been shocked to discover that Maths is one of the subjects that they most fear in their Computer Science courses.  This never makes sense to me, as for many of these students, Maths is one of the few subjects that they will have seen before.  This should be the subject that gives them comfort as they struggle with topics such as programming, networking etc.  What gives me a great sense of personal satisfaction is when these same students tell me that they will miss Maths.

There has been a lot of discussion about the issues with Maths education in Ireland over the past few years.  The new Project Maths syllabus has been introduced which is being rolled out on a phased basis. I’m really looking forward to the rollout of Project Maths over the next few years – before I looked into the changes which are proposed in the new Maths syllabus I was concerned about what was being removed from the syllabus.  Since then, I have had a look at the changes and while some topics are being removed and others are being pared back I think that the emphasis on applications is a very positive step forward.  It is absolutely crucial that students can place Maths in context.  Hearing students say that they will never use Maths, as they use Maths concepts without even thinking about it, shows how disconnected Maths as a subject has become from everyday life.  Anything that reverses this must be good.

While I welcome the change in emphasis in the Maths curriculum in second level, I personally don’t think it should happen in isolation.  I think we need to address the elephant in the room, which is the social acceptability of the lack of ease with Maths.  This often manifests itself in the home.  Parents who themselves are not confident in their Maths ability often pass on these insecurities about Maths to their children without even being aware of it.  Many parents, whose children are in primary school, often feel ill equipped to help their children with their Maths homework as they move up the classes.  If the child feels insecure in their own ability in Maths by the time they leave primary school, then ‘not being good’ at Maths becomes a self fulfilling prophecy as they tackle more abstract Maths concepts.  I would love to see a real engagement with parents over the coming years. Supporting parents to conquer their own Maths demons, will surely only help to overcome the Maths demons of the upcoming generation before they manifest themselves.

As always thoughts etc. gratefully accepted.


24 responses to “I was never good at Maths

  1. Really great Post Pam. Hope you have sent a copy to Minister Quinn. Standards in Maths have dropped at Primary Level. Pupils should be challenged more and given concrete materials to help them in problem solving.

  2. Completely agree that anything that makes people more comfortable with Mathematics must be a good thing. Everybody uses mathematics of some sort, every day of their lives. However, teaching of maths in secondary school & in third level is often done by people who are expert mathematicians, but have difficulty imparting their knowledge.

    • I have to agree that some people teaching Maths have difficulty imparting their knowledge. I think it’s crucial that people teaching Maths have a very good understanding of their subject area and are very comfortable with the connections across topics so that they can put formulae etc. in context. This subject knowledge is not enough though, Maths teachers and lecturers must be able to help their students to understand topics that many find very difficult.

  3. I agree with what you are saying, maths is one of those subjects that people come out and say “I was never good at that.” My personal view is that in second level its very dependent on the teacher as to how the students experience the subject, in my personal experience I never minded maths in school, I had a brilliant teacher for five out of my six years in secondary school, by that I mean someone who had a clear passion for the subject and a great way of communicating with the class. Her enthusiasm and no nonsense approach just really worked. Also one of the subjects I teach is religious education, so I do get what you’re saying about the comments, if i have got a euro for every time a student said “Why do I have to do religion for my junior cert, I don’t want to be a priest!”, i’d be very rich!!:-)

    • I think it’s interesting that you mention a particular teacher Edel. I think that those who have a love for a subject, and particularly Maths can often trace it back to a teacher who had a love for the subject and passed it on.

      • Yes well believe me i have no great love for maths, but even now (several years later) when I think of maths in terms of school I do connect it to that teacher, which is a positive, its the same with Irish, while I had and still have no great love for the subject, the teacher I had was great so I only have positive memories of the subject! A clear difference was that I loved art and history in school and it wouldn’t have mattered what the teacher was like I still was going to enjoy the subject regardless as I had a passion for both!

      • I agree that having a passion for a subject counts for a lot and removes a dependence on the teacher but again, and maybe this is just down to my bias, I think the impact of a good teacher in Maths cannot be underestimated. I think that the incremental nature of topics in Maths means that if the basics are not well understood, then what was previously a positive experience, can very quickly become a negative one.

  4. Great article as usual Pam. You mirror the thoughts of many teachers who ‘loved’ maths. I think initiatives like Maths Week are starting to gain traction which is great. One thought that springs to mind as to why some people dislike maths might be to do with the fact it is compulsory in schools. What do you think?

    • I’ve never really thought of Maths not being compulsory Simon. I would see it as a retrograde step but maybe something as radical as removing the compulsory nature of the subject would make us all look at it in a different light and really make it ‘fit for purpose’. I think we need to reconnect with Maths, and as you say in the next comment, see its use in real life. It’s not good enough to deal with a vibrant subject like Maths in a very abstract way and leave it up to students to work out where they could use something like a quadratic equation.

  5. Great post Pam. I think you mirror the thoughts of many teachers who ‘loved’ maths in school. I take the same issue with children who tell me they can’t draw, etc. As with almost everything, it’s more about society than schools, in my opinion. I think people tend to blame their experience of school for a lot of things, e.g. not being able to speak Irish. I think the reason that these “truths” exist is because of external attitudes. As a previous comment says, we need to see the use of these subjects in real life. I think we’re beginning to see this in Maths now. Hopefully it’s not too late!

    • I don’t think it is too late but then I’m an eternal optimist 🙂 I do think that we need to do more than we are doing at the moment though. As you say external attitudes are crucial and I think that the attitude of parents etc. have a huge impact for better or worse!

  6. Pam,

    I really appreciate this post- while I think some children may enter the world with a bit more disposition towards mathematical thinking, we have far more of a gap in feeling comfortable with doing math than we should. I see it as culturally supported- almost a badge of honor to “not like math.” Kids should see math everywhere- in the natural world, the built world, the arts world, the social world. It’s all around them and when given the chance to have fun with math, use math as a language, it’s as natural as learning Gaelic or English or Spanish is for them at a young age. When parents or teachers model not being able to think mathematically as a handicap, it sets up a culture of mathematical disability. We can do better than this-

    • Pam,
      It’s that acceptance of a difficulty with Maths that I wanted to address with the post. This for me is the single biggest hurdle we need to address. Lots of kids think they can’t do it even before they try and then, lo and behold they can’t do it. As you say we can, and should do better!

  7. I love this post – it reflects exactly my dismay at adults, including teachers, who publicly justify their timidity by “I was never good at maths,” thereby perpetuating the problem.
    That’s one part of the argument. Then there’s the terminology, the leaps of faith needed as you advance, and the perceived disconnect with reality. Etc. But I wonder if a lot of the difficulty is actually very deep-seated and stems from the early abstraction required with elementary algebra: symbols representing other symbols representing physical quantities. Should we expect everyone capable of thinking in the abstract? That’s my main question, but also should we expect everyone to be good at maths, and what is “good”?

    • Clive,
      I think you’ve hit on the problem. I often work through concrete examples in class which students are usually ok with but once I introduce x and/or y, i.e a level of abstraction, eyes glaze over and I have already lost a number of students. I think we have a responsibility to work on this area of Maths and contextualise it for students. Regarding your question as to whether we should expect everyone capable of thinking in the abstract – probably not but I think we are losing too many students who are capable of thinking in the abstract, by disconnecting Maths from real life. Also, I don’t think we should expect that everyone should be ‘good’ at Maths – the problem is that people who tell you that they are not good at Maths, actually use Maths concepts to solve problems in their everyday life but don’t connect the two. I think this comes back to the disconnection between Maths as a subject and the Maths you use without thinking about it. Another crucial factor is that there are so many areas of Maths and very few are good at all but there is no distinction when you say ‘I was never good at Maths’!!

  8. We have the same dilemma on this side of the pond, Pam. I wonder if the same situation exists elsewhere in the world? I wonder if we would observe the same phenomenon in Japan, China, Korea, or India? Or Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Chile? Is there any sort of cultural or ethnic factor that influences societal views of math(s)? I really would like to know if this is the case.


    • I’m not sure what the answer to your question is Dave. The conversations I have had as a result of the post have been with people in Ireland, the UK or the US. Most seem to confirm the issue. I would suspect that it is not an issue in Japan etc but have nothing to back this up.

  9. Sometimes I feel like there is a similar attitude to science. Oh, I was never good at that, but sure my kids will pick it up anyway regardless of my attitude.

    I’m beginnning to think science/maths grinds for primary school student PARENTS might help. Demonstrate the value of science and maths to the people who spend most of their time teaching children.

    • I have been thinking about the idea of seminars or grinds as you suggest for parents. Its something I’ve mentioned to the principal of my daughters school. Maybe this is the year I do something about it! Like you I think getting to parents is key and I also think parents of primary school children are who we need to target particularly for maths as often the damage is done by the time children leave primary school.

  10. Dear Pam,
    As an exponent of the Indian schools in India, I can very proudly say that I learnt Math right from the basically and in due time I honed it.

    I personally believe that almost just about anyone can be drawn to Maths as long the student is shown various facets of the subject. Thanks largely due to the internet, today we can evoke interest in Maths by mixing the theorems and riders of Math with an equal side of videos, cartoons, music and other comparisons regarding Maths.

    I also show my students many different wallpapers connecting them with Math and also challenge them with many brain teasers besides the regular word problems. Another motivating factor, I try is by telling and showing them the relevance if Mathematics in real life and how we all need it, even though invariably.

    Your article is very enlightening and thought provoking well, loved reading it.

    Best Wishes from Bucharest

    • Sounds like your class is very interesting Vijay. I think that you are right about showing the relevance of Maths and like your ideas of using different types of resources. I also agree that almost anyone can be drawn into Maths with the right tools.

  11. Great article, very well put together and thought out..agree with you but hate to say that I never liked Maths and just put up with it. Was more interested in English, debating, arts based subjects anything that involved passionate communication. Maths requires a different style and a different learner. I do believe that you cannot make a Maths lover into an arts lover and vice versa but one can appreciate each other in the world.
    However, as a teacher who never really loved Maths, I appreciate the problems children have and can share frustrations and ideas on solving problems in an interpersonal way.
    There is room for us all!

    • Thanks Rozz,
      I think you’re right about the different styles and as you say there is room for all. I think it is important that teachers of Maths can see the frustrations that their students have when they don’t get it and that they can support them by taking different approaches. There isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ solution and teachers of Maths need to be aware of this whether it’s a straightforward topic or a more complex one.

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