'Can we get every student to love maths?'

It's more fashionable to hate maths than any other school subject – why is this? Two experts explain

Lucy Rycroft-Smith and Darren Macey

Poor maths skills cost economy more than £350m per week

Next week we are being invited to consider the question: "What if…we wanted all kids to love maths?" at one in a series of UCL debates that continue to ask important question about education. This is in some sense trivial, of course: it would be hard to argue for all pupils loving anything without a serious side debate about freedom of choice and individualism. But it cannot be denied that maths is unpopular; indeed, it may be more fashionable to hate maths at school than just about any other subject. Right?

Actually, this is not wholly true. Some studies have suggested that many of us begin school with a positive attitude to maths but over time, for many, this initial enthusiasm wanes and can eventually become outright hostility. It has been suggested that ‘the pressure exercised on children to cope with highly demanding tasks, frequently at a pace beyond their ambition, together with unimaginative instruction and non-positive teacher attitudes have a destructive impact on their conceptions of mathematics’. It is often claimed by those who enjoyed maths at school that a source of comfort is the perception of maths questions as being “either right or wrong”. Certainly, for children used to getting things right more often than not, there is some benefit in this cycle of positive reinforcement. For those who are not so fortunate, repeated failure can provoke an emotional reaction that results in an overall negative schema of mathematics that may become a permanent source of beliefs and attitudes.

Clearly then, individual experience has a significant impact on attitude to maths, and many children and adults have positive beliefs about the subject; but there is something slightly odd about maths (pun intended). It seems to be far more acceptable to express an inability or unwillingness to engage in mathematical activity than in other disciplines. Would we be so comfortable with the idea of students flippantly claiming "I’ve never been any good at reading and writing"? Moreover, maths is often at the forefront of the setting/streaming debate, with many students experiencing negative affective responses to early and seemingly inflexible expressions of their "ability" that then multiply throughout their school career, which have nothing to do with the subject itself and everything to do with our fetishising of it as a kind of sorting hat.

Inevitably, wider social factors are at play here. Advertisers are undeniably at fault, with multiple examples of lazy "maths is boring" and "I’m so terrible at maths!" messaging. Stricter limitations on taking our subject’s name in vain (and while we’re talking about it, using "stats" inappropriately to prove almost anything in advertising) would send a clear message.

Is it just 'cool' to hate maths?

This is all part of a prevalent, ingrained, learned cultural response to maths. But "the encultured expression of like and dislike may obscure what they actually felt; and indeed what they actually felt might consist of what they have learned to say about feelings..It does not follow, however, that people necessarily possess something called beliefs, nor that these beliefs be coherent and consistent". In other words; kids might profess to hate maths because it’s something people say, or it’s cool; not because they really do.

The increase in "maths-for-pleasure-and-leisure" that has gently trickled through su doku and numberplay into popular culture is a trajectory that we welcome – did you know your local city probably has a monthly MathJam, where enthusiasts in many guises meet to play with mathematics?  Widespread school MathsJams would be a wonderful thing. The analogy with getting stuck isn’t an accident here, either: a key part of the enjoyment of maths for many people is working through the process of learning to get stuck and unstuck independently. Compare this to the obvious helplessness of a student without these skills: "I don’t get stuck in other subjects, only maths…I can’t do anything but wait for help." We need more deliciously sticky stuff, not just times tables testing.

But therein lies the rub: this requires a confident leader, who not only speaks but enacts a love for maths. This can be quite complicated, due in part to a braking mechanism called "maths anxiety", which can make sufferers feel shame, worry and even produce physical symptoms – and there’s evidence to suggest it’s catching, too

Teachers who feel anxious about maths beget students who feel anxious about maths, and add parents into the mix and there can be a great deal of anxiety humming around the subject. High-stakes testing, perception of humiliation and public performance are the fluid for these braking mechanisms, and even someone who may start with an interest in maths can have their spirit broken by it. Anyone who has dealt with anxiety knows that the first step is acknowledgement; the second understanding; the third, gentle support. There is little public understanding of this condition and even less discussion of it in broad educational or political discourse.

Is it that maths is harder than other subjects and those lazy students just don’t want to put in the effort? Often, students’ perception of mathematics – that it is arbitrary, unconnected or irrelevant – may be down to curriculum matters. Projects such as ‘Realistic Maths Education’ are exploring the benefits of using familiar contexts to harness students’ intuitive understanding of mathematics before introducing them to more formal or abstract concepts; meanwhile, research in statistical literacy has demonstrated that very young children are instinctively able to make informal inferences from contextualised data. Significantly though there still remains a question of definition that dogs mathematics, from dinner-party discussions to policy-making fora. Just what does it mean to be doing maths? Mathematics as defined by curricula and the needs of assessment consists of a narrow set of tools applied in constrained situations, but is this really how a mathematician would describe the discipline? Is it even how a user of maths would describe it?

In schools, students experiencing sessions based on new Core Maths qualifications often respond very positively to activities based on discussion, experiment and simulation. When pressed further, they say, "I liked it but it’s not really maths is it?” Similarly, people in a whole range of professions who use maths confidently and flexibly in their daily work will claim to be terrible at maths. Recently a mortgage adviser who had spent half an hour explaining in detail the implications of various initial conditions for monthly payments by means of a series of complicated two-way tables riddled with percentages claimed just this. When challenged, her response was the same “but this doesn’t count as maths…”

Starting with curriculum seems urgent. Developing a more coherent, connected, accessible and ultimately lovable maths curriculum is not a trivial matter; we have been working on a tool to enable just that for some three years, and we’re not yet finished. The paradoxical nature of curriculum change – at once too fast and too slow – has meant that designing a mathematics curriculum is rarely done well, with access to research insights and clear information on potential tradeoffs being notably missing from the process up until now. The ability to make better and more informed choices about what is or isn’t on the mathematics curriculum at national and local level, we conjecture, will be a game-changer for our subject – see here for more information on our ambitious project.

Lucy Rycroft-Smith and Darren Macey, Cambridge Mathematics

Join Tes at the UCL Institute of Education for "What if... we wanted all kids to love maths?" on Tuesday 12 June


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Lucy Rycroft-Smith and Darren Macey

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