What is the first thing that you think of when someone says maths? Do you feel full of confidence and excitement or rather dread and fear?
During our first maths input this afternoon, I realised just how many people experience the latter mentioned feelings of fear and anxiety. There were even people who talked about feeling physically sick just at the thought of it. Why is this? As teachers it will be important to think about why maths is such a huge cause for concern, for so many, and what methods can be used to change peoples’ attitudes towards such an important part of the curriculum.
A main point that came out of the discussions during the workshop was that if people did not feel like they were good at maths they kept that mentality throughout their time at school, and still find it difficult to see the opportunities to become more confident in this subject. When we are challenged by something, especially as children, a natural reaction is often to switch off, shut things out or give up. I think this has something to do with feeling vulnerable and embarrassed, especially when we start comparing ourselves with others who seem to know it all.
I would like to spend some time sharing and reflecting on my own experience of maths in primary and secondary school. From when I first started school in primary 1 right up to primary 7, I found myself in all of the ‘top groups’ including maths. I always felt happy and confident during maths lessons and very able to explain to others how to get to an answer without much worry or concern. Of course there were areas which I found difficult but they didn’t make me scared or less confident in my abilities.
My high confidence in maths continued into the first couple of years of high school but I no longer enjoyed the lessons as much, as most of the work we did came straight from the textbook. I can’t quite pin-point the moment that I started to feel less confident in my abilities in maths but I know that it started to creep in during my exam years.
Our standard grade teacher encouraged us all to sit higher maths as she believed that we were all capable of continuing at that level. It was this confidence in our class that made me choose maths as a subject in fifth year. This was probably the year that knocked my confidence the most because I had always felt good at maths until this point. My parents arranged for me to be tutored in maths as I was able to do the work but perhaps required more time to go over areas of difficulty. That being said, I have forgotten a lot of what I learnt that year and have found myself telling others that maths is something I am not very good at, despite the fact that I managed to get a B in my Higher exam.
Looking back on my own experiences it is clear to me that a lot of our self esteem and self concept, especially in more difficult areas such as maths, comes from the teacher and their teaching style. My favourite maths lessons were the ones where we were able to do group tasks or challenges in order to find the solution to a problem.
Learning from peers can be very beneficial as one of your class mates may explain something to you, in a way that is easier for you to understand than what the teacher originally demonstrated. Explaining something to others, that you understand well, is also a great way of consolidating what you already know. During one higher maths lesson the teacher came over and heard me explaining how I worked through one of the questions to a class mate who was feeling confused. He told me that I should be a maths teacher to which I responded, “No way! I can only explain it well because I understand this bit.”
My main reflections on this topic are that you don’t have to have the highest qualification in maths to teach it well. As long as you find a way of understanding the maths that you need to teach your pupils and can help them to understand your methods in an enthusiastic, fun and interactive way then there is no need to feel anxious or scared.