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Unkind words create fear of numbers

A humiliating experience of maths at primary school can leave even numerate pupils anxious and uncertain about the subject for the rest of their lives.

Research by Karen Trew, reader in psychology at Queen's university, Belfast, has shown that feeling humiliated or embarrassed in maths lessons can lead pupils to develop maths anxiety. This means they will avoid the subject and develop negative attitudes to general problem-solving. This results in low achievement in maths throughout their life.

Dr Trew cited the example of a psychology student who failed his statistics test. He had a vivid memory of a primary maths teacher berating him and holding up his book for the class to see.

She said: "Teachers should not say, 'You stupid boy, you can't do maths'.

They need to make maths interesting and challenging. The amount of testing, of always having to know the right answer, can add to the problem. But how you perform in tests isn't just a measure of ability. Motivation and anxiety have an effect."

A study by Mike Askew, professor of maths education at King's College, London, has concluded that pupils who work in pairs are more likely to enjoy maths lessons.

His research, conducted over several years at an inner-city London primary, is yet to be published. But he has concluded that the way pupils are taught maths has a huge impact on their ability.

He referred to a girl whose reception teacher allowed her to play with numbers, in response to her natural ability in the subject. But in Year 1, her teacher stopped her working with numbers higher than 10. "You could see this girl's interest just diminish," he said.

"By Year 3, she had become quite disengaged with maths, largely because she wanted to please her teacher.

"A lot of teachers see maths as a huge collection of separate rules that need to be taught, and children just get overloaded. But if we can help them to understand the big, underlying principles, then maths becomes something they can engage with."

Paul Holman, head of maths at Ashdown comprehensive, in Poole, said: "If pupils have positive experiences with maths teachers, it makes maths enlightening and fun. But at the moment there aren't enough quality maths teachers out there. We're in a negative spiral."

Another voice 16

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