The confidence man strikes back

22nd October 2004 at 01:00
The NasenTES Book Awards will be announced today at the Special Needs Exhibition in the Business Design Centre in London. On these pages Elaine Williams, Susannah Kirkman and Geraldine Brennan look at this year's award-winning titles

Empathy and a wicked sense of humour are not qualities which immediately spring to mind when most people recall their maths teachers.

But these characteristics are the essence of Steve Chinn, the charismatic author of The Trouble with Maths.

Dr Chinn, who is the principal and founder of Mark College, a beacon school which offers a specialist education for dyslexic boys, has an uncanny ability to see things from his pupils' perspective. He says that anxiety and fear of failure are at the root of many problems with maths:

"Constant negative feedback that you've got it wrong makes you feel you're no good and so you give up; you're not prepared to take the risk any more.

Here, no one will mock kids for what they say."

A recent study of his pupils' learning characteristics and their results at GCSE maths showed that those with the most positive attitude and the least anxiety gained the best results. Yet these marks are achieved against all the odds. Dr Chinn also quotes a University of Exeter research project into self-esteem which discovered that self-confident children believe that effort makes a difference.

"Historically, our pupils have tried this and got nowhere," he explains.

Dr Chinn believes that the crippling effects of fear and low self-esteem continue well into adulthood. He cites the case of a highly successful social worker in her 50s who appealed to him for help when she discovered that her MA social science course contained a statistics module. "She went into a blind panic," Dr Chinn says. "When I sent her a simple test to assess her difficulties, she said it took her back to her childhood and she felt emotionally destroyed."

At Mark College, staff try to rebuild pupils' self-esteem and create a warm atmosphere for boys who have previously found school an intimidating experience. Sport is an important part of increasing pupils'

self-confidence; Dr Chinn is delighted that the rugby under-16s have just drawn with the county champions. The school itself is not remotely institutional; based in a mellow stone country house, all the classrooms are small and there are only 80 pupils.

The results speak for themselves. This year, 81 per cent achieved A* to C grades at maths, compared with around 50 per cent nationally, although many of the pupils are several years behind when they arrive at the school.

Ofsted has described the school as "outstanding".

Yet when Dr Chinn first announced over 20 years ago that he was leaving his job as head of science at a thriving comprehensive, colleagues thought he was committing career suicide. He says he made the switch because he is fascinated by the process of learning, seeing it as an intellectual challenge.

"Sweeping assumptions are made about the way children learn; teachers think that learning to tell the time is easy because it's an everyday activity, for instance. But if you teach these kids, you have to abandon your assumptions," Dr Chinn explains.

No one who has read it could forget his hilarious and bitingly satirical account, reprinted in his latest book, of old Dr Algy B'rah's attempt to teach the time to the Lower Third: "It is all very logical. It takes the hour hand half a day to go round. It takes the minute hand an hour to go round and it takes the second hand a minute to go round. And when the hour hand has been round twice it's tomorrow and today becomes yesterday."

When Dr Chinn began teaching dyslexics, no one understood that they could also have problems with maths and he was on a steep learning curve: "I discovered that half the boys couldn't do tables and I tried to teach them by rote," he recalls. "It almost destroyed our relationship but it also made me realise that there's more to life than making assumptions about learning."

Dr Chinn says that much can be learnt from teaching dyslexics because teachers have to address difficulties which many "ordinary" pupils also have. Tables, telling the time and algebra are common pitfalls, for example. He hopes that his book, which is full of sensible suggestions on handling pupils' individual problems, will give teachers the theoretical structure to develop their own skills and kick-start them into building their own resources.

Visits from former pupils are among the things which give him the most satisfaction: "Sometimes they come back for reassurance, but it's great to see them as functioning adults. One of my favourite moments was meeting an old boy who was doing a maths degree. I asked him how he was managing with his seven times table and he replied, 'Tables are not a big issue in the third year of a maths degree.'"

Dr Chinn still treasures the small silver cup awarded to him by a pupil who gained grade F at GCSE maths, despite huge difficulties. The inscription reads: "For Dr Chinn for teaching me maths: 1110."

Steve Chinn can be contacted at Mark College, Mark, Highbridge, Somerset TA9 4NP, tel: 01278 641632. Email:

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