When people ask me what I study at university and I reply “maths”, there are one of two reactions: “Wow you must be smart!” or “Oh gosh what are you doing that for?!” Both responses are almost always followed by “I never ‘got’ maths at school”. For some learning maths is straightforward, however many get lost.
Learning mathematics is a cumulative skill; you learn new skills by building on the ones you have already learned. So, if you don’t fully grasp certain skills taught at, say, Standard Grade or GSCE level, then you will find it harder to learn at a further level like Higher or A-level. I once read a fitting analogy; it can be compared to wandering through a house, trying to find a specific room. If you have understood all the maths skills taught to you it’s the equivalent of seeing the blue-prints of the house before you step foot in it. You know where you are going and how you get there. But if you do not fully understand the skills that have been taught to you, it’s like being let loose in the house, aware of where you need to go but unaware of how to get there. You could end up wandering around aimlessly, perhaps coming across the room eventually or by chance, or perhaps not even at all.
The important thing to discuss is how to change this. People can be very disconnected from maths. More often than not we are instilled with the belief that maths is difficult and that it will be hard to study. There is also a strange camaraderie amongst people who find mathematics difficult, people identify with each other when they share stories of struggling with maths at school. It also has a negative stigma attached to it; mathematics is seen as a subject only for ‘boffins’ or ‘geeks’ and I have heard many people proclaim that they will “never use this again in real life”. In reality, mathematics lays the foundation for many different things we use and experience every single day. Maths governs flower petals, bridges and how a kettle boils amongst a multitude of other things. Children in High School, and even Primary School, need to have mathematics put into context for them. They should be able to engage with maths and be excited and inspired by it to provoke the change in attitude required. Teachers need to keep an eye out for those students who struggle, and to communicate with parents to help them become actively involved or arrange for their children to receive more help. Sometimes a five-minute explanation of a confusing topic is all that it takes to provide a child with more mathematical confidence.
Having low mathematical ability can be a huge hindrance when job hunting too. Many employers now will require to applicants to complete a numeracy test before progressing to an interview stage. For example, in a retail job a basic understanding of arithmetic and percentages is essential. The embarrassment and low self-confidence in mathematical ability can hold people back and discourage them when applying for jobs that they really want to go for. In an effort to change this, the government have spent £9bn on the Skills For Life qualifications to improve reading, writing, numeracy amongst those who are 16 or over, have left full-time education and lack up-to-date English or Mathematics qualifications.
The change required needs to start at home, parents need to be aware of how they portray mathematics – and other subjects – to their children and should start them on arithmetic at as early an age as possible. Struggling children then need to be identified at an early stage, letting children continue to study mathematics when they are having problems will compound their dislike and low confidence in the subject. Change also comes from the individual; if someone is having problems getting to grips with the subject then they should not be afraid to speak up to change this. It is imperative that we foster a supportive and approachable environment in which people can study mathematics, and other such subjects, with confidence and without prejudice.