Can a raise in attainment within mathematics be created and maths anxiety destroyed?

Discovering maths has really opened my mind and has got me thinking about how I want to teach maths in my future classroom and what kind of teacher in maths I want to be.

After one of the discovering maths lectures it allowed me to begin to ask myself a series of questions around the way maths is perceived within schools and the way in which maths is taught. I now ask myself, can we raise attainment within maths, not by doing more maths but by doing different maths?

When I think back to my experience of maths in both primary and secondary school they are very similar – sitting at a desk, the teacher talking a new concept to you, you then completed some examples and then you were assessed on your understanding … or more like memory. Nothing ‘fun’, no enthusiasm or creativity presented. It was JUST maths.

Jo Boaler’s (2009) study has really begun to form a foundation to my thinking of my future teaching of mathematics. The study carried out was on 2 schools, Amber Hill which was a traditional school which followed set methods and procedures, distinct topics and closed mathematical problems and Phoenix Park which was a progressive school where there was a degree of choice, openness and mathematically rich experiences. From a series of assessments Amber Hill pupils performed worse than Phoenix Park. Amber Hill pupils had a broad understanding of facts, rules and procedures however they found them difficult to remember over time. Whereas Phoenix Park pupils were flexible and adaptable and they were able to see their knowledge in different situations.

Going back to my question of can we raise attainment within maths, not by doing more but by doing different maths, Amber Hill pupils had not learned any less maths than those at Phoenix Park, but different maths. Jo Boaler concluded from her study that transmitting mathematics is less helpful, which those at Amber Hill experienced, than classrooms where pupils are “apprenticed into a system of knowing, thinking and doing”(Boaler, 2009), which those at Phoenix Park experienced. Therefore, this has allowed me to reflect on the teaching of maths I have experienced and has really opened my eyes to some of the ‘could be’ causes of maths anxiety amongst both pupils and teachers.

Through Jo Boaler’s findings it has become apparent that Amber Hill pupils demonstrated instrumental understanding and Phoenix Park pupils demonstrated relational understanding(Skemp,1989). The best way to think about these concepts is that those pupils who demonstrated relational understandings are like a chef, if they are missing an ingredient to their recipe they know what they can use as a substitute to make what their making taste the same. Whereas those pupils who demonstrated an instrumental understanding are like recipe followers, meaning that if they are missing an ingredient they would have no idea what they could use as a substitute, therefore would be unable to complete the recipe. In a more mathematical example, mathematics is hidden in our everyday lives which some people are unaware of (Haylock, 2010, p13) such like telling the time, counting money, reading bus timetables as they forget that this is ‘maths’, therefore unconsciously allow themselves to overcome their confusion/fear of maths with no realisation that they are doing it, because it is relevant at that time. However, as soon as maths is disclosed, it causes fear and uncertainty across many (Haylock, 2014, p4). Therefore, again implying that when people have that basic understanding, know where maths can be used in their own lives and are able to use their knowledge in different situations, it begins to erase this maths anxiety (Haylock, 2014).

From this it has highlighted to me that we need to create ‘chefs’ within maths in schools, where pupils are enthused, engaged and enjoy maths because it should not just be about learning a concept, having to memorise it, just to get the answer correct when completing a test because asHaylock (2010, p5) goes on to describe, a lack of confidence within maths is formed from thinking you have to get the answer correct. This is where from the discovering maths lectures, already have got me thinking about how I can have an influence in reducing the fear and anxiety of maths amongst pupil. I am now aware that in the classrooms today we need to create an understanding, which allows for wrong answers and allows children to focus on the methods and thinking behind the answer (Hansen et al, 2017, p3) and move away from this ‘traditional’ maths and begin to teach ‘different’ maths.

Overall, I think maths anxiety can be destroyed within the younger generation and I believe that a raise in attainment within maths can be created by doing ‘different’ maths, other than just the traditional set methods and procedures, distinct topics and closed mathematical problems. I think that if we teach maths to create basic understandings where choice, openness and experiences are present and we create ‘chefs’ within the classroom, children will have a much better chance of having flexibility and adaptability within their learning, being able to transfer their knowledge to different situations, therefore meaning that when they do come across concepts/problems that are more difficult and that they haven’t seen before, the pupils can begin to look at them with a much more open mind set.


Boaler, J. (2009) The Elephant in the Classroom: Helping Children to Learn and Love Maths.  London: Souvenir Press Ltd.

Skemp, R. R. (1989) Mathematics in the Primary School. London: Routledge.

Hansen, A., Drews, D. and Dudgeon, J. (2017) Children’s Errors in Mathematics. 4thedn. London: Learning Matters

Haylock, D. (2010) Mathematics Explained for Primary Teachers. 4thedn. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Haylock, D. (2014) Mathematics Explained for Primary Teachers. 5thedn. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

1 thought on “Can a raise in attainment within mathematics be created and maths anxiety destroyed?

  1. Jonathan Brown

    “I now ask myself, can we raise attainment within maths, not by doing more maths but by doing different maths?” What a fantastic question! I liked the link you made between maths anxiety and being a recipe follower; a chef wouldn’t get upset if they were missing an ingredient they would just substitute for another! I’m not sure if it was a typo or not but Jo Boaler is a woman.


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