Children struggle with maths because the subject is taught backwards, according to an expert from the Institute of Education, University of London.
"For instance, with a language you learn it by speaking it, but with maths you learn about it first and then use it later," says David Pratt.
He has devised technology-based methods to turn this back around and enable pupils to learn maths as they use it.
In his inaugural professorial lecture, "Making mathematics phenomenal", he presented research showing how to make maths more "exciting and powerful".
Real-life scenarios are important: Professor Pratt asks how you decide the best route for a village bypass. Would you pick the cheapest route? What about the hospital that would have to be knocked down?
Bringing ethical considerations and social costs into maths is one way to make it more engaging for pupils, he says.
He is concerned that many children become disillusioned with maths at school and retain this attitude into adulthood, becoming almost proud of their lack of understanding.
Poor numeracy is known to damage life chances, affecting employment prospects as well as the ability to handle personal finances.
"The number of those pursuing maths at degree level is now worryingly low, as it is for those going into the careers where maths is required," says Professor Pratt, a former maths teacher.
"The problem with maths is that it is taught in a way that is disconnected from the children - they don't see how it is relevant to their lives."
He adds: "Seeing how you can use maths to answer problems and get stuff done is the key. Many students never understand why they are learning algebra, for example, but this approach makes it much more meaningful."
Professor Pratt's lecture is available for pound;5 via ioe.ac.uknewsEvents61915.html.