Making the answer crystal clear

22nd November 2002 at 00:00
Q: I am a trainee teacher at a comprehensive school in Cardiff. I find that students can understand much of what is being taught, but when they can't understand something, they refuse to even attempt it. They build a mental wall that prevents them grasping any mathematical nuance. I try to keep it interesting and relevant to their lives, but at times this is difficult. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

A: Pupils sometimes put up barriers to cope with their fear of maths. The best way to overcome these is by building their confidence, which may have been knocked for these reasons:

* they may have been laughed at for failing to understand or called names if they were too successful

* they have had negative experiences in maths

* they have not been able to progress at their own pace

* they have missed the essential elements to understand a topic

* their parents have said they couldn't do maths, so their children can't either

* they have had too many tests, followed by poor results. This is particularly true for adolescents, as abstraction of thought is relatively new to them. Too much testing can also lead to boredom

* they are caught in a visious circle of anxiety, which affects their working memory and makes it harder to process information, thus creating a barrier to mental calculation. There is discussion and research and on this topic at http:plus.maths.orgissue16editorial

I have written a poem which illustrates some of this fear:

Mathematics is where,

I always feel despair

even though I try in vain

number facts to retain.

Poor performance is repeated

as I'm often defeated.

I watch on in awe;

they're asking for more!

But I just feel rotten,

because I've forgotten,

my tables.

Embarrassment and fear.

The answer should be clear.

Is it because I'm unable

to remember my times table?

I know what's in store,

teacher opens the door.

The wrong answer I utter

down in the gutter,

the answer is unknown.

My classmates they groan,

I can hear the sound

when they all look around.

I really can't divide

my stupidity tied

to my tables.

Embarrassment and fear.

The answer should be clear.

Is it because I'm unable

to remember my times table?

To increase children's confidence you should stress that maths is a conversation and that incorrect responses often contribute more to understanding a topic than correct answers.

Break the tasks down into parts, so they can access the concept more easily. Be careful not to make the work too easy as pupils enjoy a challenge. Also don't pretend that maths is easy - it isn't. Getting to grips with a difficult concept gives it higher value and boosts their confidence.

A five-year-old boy once told me that he could count to 100, but not any further. I took out a card with 121 written on it and covered the 21 with two fingers. I asked him what number was on the card. "A hundred," he said. Then I covered the hundred's place and asked him again. "Twenty one," he said. I uncovered all of the number. "What number is this?" "One hundred and twenty one!" The magic moment was apparent on his face as he smiled at me.

This letter started me thinking about attitudes among teachers, And I got talking to a primary teacher on the subject. He put forward an interesting comment:

"In some primary schools teachers don't voice their concerns or ask for ideas because they fear being considered incompetent or failures. Instead of thinking in terms of learning from each other we now think in terms of 'judging' our professional colleagues. The challenge is to find a way round these issues."

Primary teachers have to be experts in everything. Having to to provide extension for brighter pupils and in some cases take them to a GCSE, when maths is not their specialist subject, must be daunting. However, I feel that those who are confident are so because they challenge, question and learn from colleagues at all levels. Of course, time is an issue and maths isn't the only subject they have to teach. Wouldn't it be amazing if teachers could have a day a week to pursue an interest? Imagine the excitement!

Wendy Fortescue-Hubbard is a teacher and games inventor. Email your questions to Or write to TES Teacher, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX

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