How can schools help change negative attitudes to maths?


The National Numeracy Challenge signals a concerted effort to help the estimated 17 million workers who have poor numeracy skills ― but what can schools do to help change negative attitudes to maths?

We are reaching a crisis point in the UK where a huge proportion of the population is leaving school without the necessary numeracy skills to cope in the modern workforce. Without skilled workers, high-skilled and well-paid jobs in the STEM industries will continue to go abroad. There are many people that the National Numeracy Challenge will need to reach in order to improve the national picture, including employers and teachers battling to remove the notion that mathematics is too difficult.

The attitude barrier 

Attitudes are a prerequisite to change and will determine if someone’s actions are positive or negative. Unfortunately, in the UK the attitude toward mathematics has been dismissive, which has contributed to many young people and adults accepting that it is okay to be bad at mathematics.

My work has sent me all over the world and it is clear to see that in many eastern Asian countries, mathematics is seen as hugely valuable and society holds academic achievement in high regard. If we are to compete with emerging and growing economies such as China and India, it is vital that there is a shift in mind-set. As shadow education minister, Stephen Twigg put it: “Numeracy is not just a moral imperative, it is an economic necessity.”

When it comes to attitude, there is another problem. People often muddle mathematics and numeracy. While there is an obvious over-lap, when people claim they cannot “do maths” they are often thinking of algebraic formulae or perhaps the geometry that they were taught in classrooms rather than the use of numbers and general mathematical thinking. Of course, numeracy is dependent on having a firm foundation of early mathematical understanding.

Mathematics in the real world

Part of the battle for mathematics teachers is conveying to pupils that the skills they learn in the classroom will have an impact on their ability to use numbers in their daily adult lives. 

Preparing students for GCSE examinations is important but unless students understand how to apply these mathematical skills they will not always be able to use them in their future lives.

While a C grade in mathematics GCSE is widely accepted by employers as a minimum for successful applicants, it can often be a problematic indicator. Some students will achieve a C grade and feel comfortable in putting those skills into practice, displaying numeracy and mathematical ability. 

On the other hand, another student may have achieved the same grade through memorising how to solve particular problems and displaying good exam technique, but cannot apply those skills in the real world.

Numeracy is not just important for engineers and accountants, every workplace can benefit from improved numeracy. Recently I was speaking to a woman who is attempting to improve numeracy in the hairdressing industry where misunderstanding ratios when mixing various dye chemicals could be hazardous. 

The main benefits for employers in having a numerate workforce are reduced lack of wastage, logical thinking and workers with the ability to interpret data, such as staff hours and pay.

I have witnessed plenty of examples of the mishaps that can occur when people do not have solid number skills. Early in my teaching days, a geography teacher at the same school placed an order for 144 pots of glue, but had failed to interpret that the glue came in a batch of a gross (12x12=144), as it was known then – 20,736 pots would have kept the school going for years.

What is going wrong?

There is no single factor as to why a student leaves school with poor numeracy skills; it could be a combination of the child being absent during crucial mathematics lessons or a child not getting on with a particular teacher. Compounded with a negative attitude to mathematics conveyed by their parents, children can fall between the cracks.

A one-to-one government strategy that ran one hour a week, identified children’s areas of weakness but unfortunately the funding disappeared and the programme stopped. Without that one-to-one assistance, it is more vital than ever to make mathematics classes engaging for all pupils whatever their ability. The consensus of opinion is that we must get children interested in the subject early on. 

Mathematics does not need to involve dry textbook-based lessons. There are so many subjects, historical events, technological and scientific breakthroughs that can be linked to mathematics, providing more context and relevance. Linking mathematics to awareness days or landmark anniversaries can really help bring it to life and give students a clearer idea of how mathematics is applied. 

Marcus du Sautoy, president of the Mathematical Association, said: “The large amount of science and mathematics that we see on television and read in the newspapers is indicative of the real appetite among the public, including school children, for learning about fundamental science and maths. 

“News items on the nuclear science developments, underpinned by CERN and the discovery of Higgs Boson, has helped highlight the importance of maths and its applications. There are so many stories in maths and if we want to grow our economy on the strength of our maths and science skills, then we need to start telling these stories.”

What can we learn from China?

Teachers are committed to ensuring all children understand mathematics. They face challenges at all angles; working with a system that is too driven towards examinations rather than preparing children for the workplace and the real world. 

We cannot import the Chinese education system but there are certainly things we can learn. For example, professional development in China and Korea is prolific. Teachers run sessions called Lesson Study whereby a teacher will liaise with colleagues on the content of a lesson, deliver the lesson while being observed by fellow teachers and receive feedback at the end. 

Working in collaboration, the teachers will discuss the good points and areas for improvement. We have a similar thing in UK lesson observation. However, a lot of teachers believe this is linked to performance-related pay. If teachers feel that their lessons are not being observed with a pay increase or decrease in mind, they are much more likely to approve of it and not be intimated by such transparency. 

There are plenty of CPD opportunities available for mathematics teachers either through the Mathematical Association or other organisations. Teachers should take advantage of this as one step in the fight to improve numeracy. 

Statistics show that the proportion of adults with literacy skills equivalent to the level of GCSE A* to C, is up from 44 to 57 per cent since 2003, the figure for numeracy has actually dropped from 26 to 22 per cent. 

We are witnessing the emergence of strong economic players in the global market in the form of China and India, who both put mathematics and numeracy at the heart of their education system. If we wish to grow our economy and compete in the market, this “can’t do” attitude towards mathematics needs to go. The campaign embodies this sense of national urgency.

  • Peter Ransom is the president designate of the Mathematical Association. He will speak on cross-curricular mathematics (along with Marcus Du Sautoy) at the Mathematical Association annual conference in April.

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