The subject of Maths is divisive, even beyond the system of education, and it has the potential to greatly impact people’s everyday life (both for good and for bad, depending on someone’s experience with it during their school years) (Bellos, 2010). It has been argued that it has the potential to separate humans into two distinctive categories; there are those who just “get Mathematics” and then there are people in society who think that it is an impossibility for them to ever understand the fundamental concepts of mathematics, so avoid maths for the rest of their lives (Foss, cited in Skemp, 1986). Today, we can understand this as a person being anxious about mathematics: Maths Anxiety.
Having a fear of anything related to mathematics has plagued society for generations and it continues to affect our young learners of today. An even scarier reality is that it even affects our educators.
It has been said that teachers that feel insecure within their knowledge of mathematics will pass on their worries to their students and they will instil negative connotations towards the subject because of the anxiety, resulting in their students not reaching their full potential (Haylock, 2014). Thus, resulting in a class-full worth of people being incapable or intolerant to working with maths (something that is essential to being successful in life i.e. being able to work with your finances). Therefore, it must be paramount that a teacher who feels jittery about mathematics seeks help for their fears. The only way to do that is through diving headfirst into the world of mathematical thinking.
I myself can relate to the fact that teachers pass on their woes to their students as I have had many teachers tell me that mathematics is really tricky, which from the get-go, put boundaries between the subject of mathematics and I. However, to contrast this, I have had some amazing math teachers in high school when I was sitting my exams and their profound understanding of the subject allowed me to fully enjoy the subject and get the grade that I needed. The best teacher I had during my higher exams worked through topics with feedback from us, as students, to gauge what needed to be revised and revisited in the run up to the exam time.
However, once I did get the grade in higher Mathematics that was it for me with the subject. At least, that’s what I thought. Until it became clear that I myself was going to be teaching the subject.
I decided to choose the discovering mathematics module as an elective because I wanted to know the behind-the-scenes of what makes a successful teacher in mathematics and I felt that it would be in my best interest to study Mathematics in order to iron out any queries before teaching the subject myself. As I saw on placement, it isn’t enough just to know how to work out a problem. You also need to investigate the complexities of incorrect answers, alternative methods and the varying opinions and abilities of the subject within the classroom.
The main text of the module, Liping Ma’s “Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics” is a great example of an academic text that picks apart the realities faced by teachers on practice. Not only that but, Ma (2010), contrasts and compares the teachings of practitioners from the United States and China, as it has been seen in the likes of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA tests) that the Chinese excel within mathematics and the sciences in terms of academic scores, whilst American students have stumbled (Serino, 2017). The investigations and research conducted by Ma found that, although the training wasn’t as extensive or as long as the USA, teachers in China were better equipped with a breadth of knowledge within the fundamental principles of elementary mathematics (Ma, 2010).
How could this be?
Before education is even taken into consideration, one aspect that came to my mind was the cultural differences between the countries. Firstly, it is regarded as being intellectual to understand mathematics within school within the United States (the same can also be said about societal beliefs here in the UK about those who can ‘get maths’) as students are increasingly only seeing it in isolation as a single subject (Green, 2014). So, many students feel that it is normal just to be bad at mathematics, as it has become the cultural norm. It is a bigger fear to fail at the subject than to just dismiss it completely. Those same students become the workforce that hold this opinion of the subject throughout their pathways through life; impacting their children, peers, students, colleagues, partners… you name it. This continues the cycle of fear.
China, however, enthuses students and teachers alike to never give up and that anyone is possible of intellectual understanding through a hard work ethic. So much so, that “The Chinese teachers think that it is very important for a teacher to know the entire field of elementary mathematics as well as the whole process of learning it.” (Ma, 2010, pg.115) which highlights the severity the teachers in China place on their subject knowledge. They know how crucial they are to a child’s everlasting opinion on anything they come across when being taught.So, understanding this societal issue, we can then see how it translates in an educational setting when Chinese students are seeing a practitioner that knows the entire textbook by memory where as American (or in our case Scottish) students are taught topic-by-topic and their experience of mathematics is, traditionally, very linear.
Returning to the issue of Maths anxiety, I believe we need to change our societal opinions on education instead of just how we can tackle mathematics in isolation. In this way, we change the worries themselves. To do so, we need to encourage a you-can-do-it attitude, not only in school, but also for everyday life. Whilst on placement, my teacher was very adamant on being open with making errors within mathematics and heralded the students to call these ‘marvelous mistakes’. This worked effectively as it allowed for open dialogue, as a class, about how an error came about when working through problems. There was no shaming of who made the error because, in the end, we are all capable of failure. It was more about what we do with the failure that was important. I believe this scenario that I experienced is a fine example of a growth mindset approach (which the school utilised as a whole-school initiative). This is another aspect that needs to be at the forefront of any teaching: coherence. Green (2014), explains that many great ideas in teaching fail purely because teachers have not been sufficiently prepared collectively to tackle any given issue.
In conclusion, having fear and anxieties about mathematics is very common and many of us suffer from it, however, we need to make it our mission to break away the years of instilled fear. To do so, we need to use the studies of scholars within our schools effectively and we also need to make sure we are open and honest about how we feel about the subject. Furthermore, we need ensure that we are consistently and constantly seeking various ways to tackle mathematical thinking through problems, which will enable our students to have a richer understanding in computing numbers and formulae.
Bello, Alex (2010) Alex’s Adventures in Numberland London: Bloomsbury
Green, Elizabeth (2014) Why do Americans Stink at Maths? [Article] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/27/magazine/why-do-americans-stink-at-math.html (Accessed 20th of October 2017)
Ma, Liping (2010) Knowing and Teaching elementary mathematics: teachers’ understanding of fundamental mathematics in China and the United States New York: Routledge.
Skemp, Richard R. (1986) The Psychology of Learning Mathematics, 2nd edn. London: Penguin Books
Serino, Louis (2017) What International Test Scores Reveal about American Education [Blog] Available at: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brown-center-chalkboard/2017/04/07/what-international-test-scores-reveal-about-american-education (Accessed: 20th of October 2017)
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