Starter stage fright

13th February 2004 at 00:00

I am studying to be a primary teacher. I struggle when it comes to maths, especially mental and oral starters. I get nervous and anxious with anything to do with maths in my head, and when panic sets in my mind goes blank. Is there any way you can help me improve my mental maths skills? Or even gain some confidence in this area?

These problems might be a legacy from childhood. I suggest you read Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. You are in the best possible position to understand how some pupils might be feeling.

The mind going blank is equivalent to running out of processing space in your working memory, where information is processed or rehearsed. This store is limited in capacity. An average person's working memory has a capacity of seven digits plus or minus two - or verbally six words.

How much of the following sequence can you remember? - 114293164255366.

Rearranging it slightly might help: 1, 1, 4, 2, 9, 3, 16, 4, 25...

As you can see, each red number is a square and the black numbers in between show the number of squares I have used. It could be that you remember them more easily as three-digit numbers to help recall the sequence: 114, 293, 164, 255...

Many people do not realise that anxiety uses up space in working memory, leading to failure in the ability to process information. Dyslexic pupils often have a smaller capacity, which is why they can find multi-tasking difficult.

It might be that your strength is in visual processing, in which case if the problem is displayed visually, and you are able to write down information to aid your thoughts, the difficulty you perceive may be diminished.

Being excellent at mental maths doesn't necessarily make you excellent at maths, or vice versa. And being able to do calculations in your head doesn't make you a brilliant teacher. But it does help prevent the embarrassment of trying to check a child's answer when you are in panic and unable to process the information.

So how can you begin to build confidence? When planning oral starters for a class, make sure you have the answers for each question to hand, so that you can check them quickly. For random exercises, ask a pupil to come to the board and explain their answer (you learn a lot that way).

Let the class know that you have always found this a difficult task, they will do lots to help you get better. It gives them a lift too, particularly someone who is struggling and then comes up with a different method for a correct solution - this can do a lot for their confidence and self-esteem.

Learn your tables, if you're not very fluent in their use - but don't base this on pure rote learning as it does not give you any information to fall back on if you become anxious. Build it on making relationships between facts - that is at the basis of the numeracy strategy. The more you teach, the better your mental maths will become; if you need to use paper, then do so. And use a calculator if you need to, as long as you know how to estimate the answer to check that the answer on the calculator is correct.

Can you help?

On a recent course I delivered, Algebra for Science through Dance and Music, it became apparent that some of the language used in science is used differently in maths. Some pupils become confused as the same words are used for conceptually different processes and different words to describe the same process. For instance, in chemistry, pupils are asked to "balance" chemical equations by multiplying components of the equation, and this can be different on each side; in maths, we have to keep the equation balanced by operating in the same way on both sides.

The consensus among the science teachers on the course was that we should be emphasising in maths, from the beginning, that we have an already balanced equation (as implied by the "equal" sign) and we are trying to find a solution to it, whereas in chemistry we begin with an unbalanced equation and the task is to balance it. Once it is balanced, then what is done on one side of the equation must be done on the other to keep the balance without changing the elements or compounds.

I would be interested in feedback on discussions between you and your science colleagues, formally or informally, to identify other language in these subjects that might cause confusion. Do you know of any research in this area that has been undertaken? Differences that cause confusion might sometimes open doors in understanding.

Wendy Fortescue-Hubbard is a teacher and game inventor. She has been awarded a three-year fellowship by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) to spread maths to the masses. Email your questions to Mathagony Aunt at Or write to TES Teacher, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX

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