How can we tackle maths anxiety?

Getting rid of tests entirely isn’t enough – we need to address the entrenched maths anxiety pupils feel, write two experts

Jill Cornish and Derry Richardson

National numeracy day, maths, maths anxiety, primary maths, secondary maths

In March, new research revealed that maths anxiety could be fuelling a numeracy skills crisis – one in ten children in the UK suffers from “despair and rage” when learning maths and 33 per cent of 15- to 16-year-olds reported they got very tense when they had to complete maths homework.

Maths anxiety is clearly widespread and has a significant impact later in life, with poor numeracy levels linked to everything from lower lifetime earnings to poor mental health. Fear of maths-related situations can also affect learning as a whole. This can mean less effective learning patterns on stem subjects in secondary and further education and can even affect vocational choices later in life.

Along with many misconceptions about the value and usage of maths in adult life, the problem is exacerbated by a culture in the UK where it surprisingly acceptable to be negative about maths.  It’s not uncommon to hear people say “I’m bad at maths” or “numbers aren’t my thing”, with some even wearing this as badge of pride.

Today is National Numeracy Day – the goal of which is to challenge these attitudes by raising awareness of the importance of numeracy skills to everyday life. It’s the perfect time to encourage a debate around the role primary teaching can play in turning the tide on maths anxiety by encouraging positivity about numbers.

Testing times

It’s also Sats week and there – as always – is plenty of anxiety around the maths tests among pupils, parents and teachers. Maths anxiety is certainly linked to a wider conversation about assessment and the associated stresses. Labour recognises this – and recently pledged to scrap Sats, saying they would consult parents and teachers on an alternative that "prepares children for life, not just for exams".

In reality, maths anxiety is distinct from test anxiety – though they share similar characteristics – and it’s clear that getting rid of the tests won’t necessarily get rid of the anxiety: it has deeper cultural roots. Instead we need to find solutions to maths anxiety that start in the classroom and focus on giving children a positive experience of maths from the outset.

Attitudes are formed early on so there needs to be a focus on primary schools, changing the way we teach maths and improve the subject knowledge of our teachers. We must provide a curriculum and teacher resources that create a strong and supportive framework to develop teacher knowledge and build a depth of understanding.

An opportunity for change

The new Ofsted inspection framework will provide schools with an opportunity to think carefully about their approach to teaching maths. This needs to be in a way that builds solid foundations, supports developing fluency and provides structures for reasoning mathematically. These are all aspects of maths that help to give children confidence.

Resources that encourage slower building of solid conceptual foundations and consolidation of that learning – combined with an expectation that all learners can achieve mathematically at the same level as their peers with the right level of support at the right time – can have a significant impact. Our impact study on the impact of one resource like this in Year 1 classes showed that even pupils requiring additional support had gained confidence at the end of the first year.

Other methods to build confidence include supporting students to communicate mathematically, generalise and explore relationships. An impact study of a resource like this demonstrated that 95 per cent of teachers said that there was a positive impact on pupil enjoyment of mathematics as a result of these methods being implemented in their school. Being active, illustrating and talking are all part of communicating mathematically, and this active approach from the start helps to remove the fear and anxiety surrounding maths.

We, and many others, are publishing across the journey for both children and teachers, to ensure strong foundations, accessible and adaptable curricula designed to foster positive attitudes to numbers and maths for all. Primary schools must prioritise resources that encourage well-designed lessons that draw on a child’s strengths and identify their misconceptions early.

We know that parents too, play a critical role in helping children address maths anxiety as well as often facing their own challenges with numeracy. Working together, teachers and parents can inspire children to be more positive and curious about numbers from an early age and this national numeracy day is a great place to start.

Jill Cornish is the editorial director of Primary Maths, and Derry Richardson is the head of professional development, Oxford University Press

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