The confessions of a maths teacher...

You don't need to be good at maths to go to the supermarket, you don’t tend to use algebra explicitly in restaurants and squares are rectangles, too...

Ed Southall

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It’s well documented that many school students and adults alike are less than fond of mathematics.

It tends to be a theme I discuss on my blog: I’ve singled out over-emphasis on speed of processes, misguided attempts at trying to convince students it’s entirely relevant to their daily lives and, of course, not explaining things, as factors.

These are all ways in which we, the teachers, are sometimes subconsciously influencing things – but it’s certainly not all our fault. We live in a country where, typically, it’s a badge of honour to be crap at maths and still miraculously live a normal life.

Our bloated curriculum and imbalanced subject hierarchy don’t exactly help either. I was reading a maths book for trainee teachers the other day and I came across a familiarly painful explanation of the column method of subtraction, stating that you "cannot subtract three from two, so you must borrow…” blah blah blah.

It got me thinking – just how much do we lie to our poor little mushy-brained students when they’re absorbing what they think is the truth? What are the consequences as the truth suddenly changes conveniently and we forget to tell them? Perhaps I should hashtag this as #fakemaths. I know the best hashtags. Nobody does hashtags better than me. I digress…

Below is a letter I have kindly drafted for my maths teachers over the years to send back to me. I’ll even pay for the postage.



Dear Ed,

By a strange coincidence, we, your former maths teachers, have all ended up in a room together with only a pen and some paper and your name and address on a sticky label. We figured it meant something, so we started talking and realised we’ve all been guilty of a bad thing (or three). We hereby apologise for the following truths we accidentally lied to you about (because, reasons):

  1. Really sorry we told you that you can’t subtract a big number from a little number. We just meant don’t do it or the algorithm is harder to interpret.
  2. Whoops, you know the squares? They’re rectangles too. You could have had that mark.
  3. My method isn’t the preferred method, it’s just one of many, and efficiency is subjective.
  4. Showing all the steps really doesn’t mean you’re a better mathematician, it just means I can mark your work against the criteria I’ve been given.
  5. The even numbers in the book weren’t harder than the odd numbers – I just didn’t have anything else to give you to do.
  6. You don’t need to be good at maths to go to a supermarket.
  7. You don’t tend to use algebra explicitly in restaurants.
  8. We told you "because it works" because we didn't know why it worked.
  9. Opinions (before we’ve told you facts) aren’t really wrong as such.
  10. Equals doesn’t mean "find the answer".
  11. Algebra is not the same as 2 apples + 1 apple = 3 apples.
  12. We weren’t really adding a zero at all – but shhh, don’t tell anyone.
  13. You don’t "just have to memorise it".
  14. There’s no such thing as "borrowing" in maths – except for forgotten pencils and rubbers.
  15. Wrong answers aren’t stupid.
  16. Mathematicians struggle, too.

Hope we didn’t accidentally destroy the best subject in the world, but we totally understand if you think we’re lying to you about that.

Signed (enter your name here).



Ed Southall is a Secondary PGCE Course Leader and blogs here. 

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Ed Southall

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