Maths anxiety is a global phenomenon on the rise, which is stifling maths capabilities amongst students due to a negative emotional reaction to mathematics.
Professor Margaret Brown, president of the Maths Anxiety Trust, said recently that “England’s results suggest that our secondary pupils are among the most seriously affected by maths anxiety”. This goes someway to explaining why nearly half of the working population has the numeracy skills expected of a primary school age child, according to a report by National Numeracy.
Whilst causes of maths anxiety may vary due to the many factors at play, from individual student and parental attitudes to teaching methods, there is a real imperative across schools to try to eliminate this anxiety amongst young people, if they are to best prepare them for the working world.
“There is an imperative to try to eliminate this anxiety amongst young people.”
Because the truth is that skills developed as a result of studying maths are lifelong and open up a huge variety of interesting and fulfilling careers, from a NASA astronaut to a Lego designer, and from an McLaren engineer, to a Google data scientist. These are just the jobs of today; who knows what the jobs of tomorrow will look like.
Bridging the skills gap
The reality is, in the UK today there is a severe shortage of digital and analytical skills to meet the requirements of so many jobs, skills for which a solid understanding of math is an essential ingredient.
Recent research from Salesforce revealed that UK workers believe they lack the skills needed to operate in a “digital first” world, and what’s more they lack the resources to develop them. The survey of 23,500 people from across 19 different countries found that 80 per cent of workers in the UK said they do not feel equipped for the future of work, compared to 76 per cent of workers globally. Clearly, this is not just a challenge facing the UK.
So how can we break down the barriers to maths achievement and equip our young people with the tools to succeed in the world of work?
Understanding, not memorising
First things first. The most important aspect to remember when teaching maths is to teach for understanding, not just memorising, which is so often attributed to the subject.
With learning times tables being one of the exceptions to the rule, there is no point in students merely memorising the answer to an equation, for example, if they don’t truly understand the reasoning behind it.
“Instead of showing students a random list of sums, our approach is always to contextualise the maths.”
At Southbank International School where I teach, maths is consistently cited as a favourite subject amongst students, something that is not often seen in schools. I am convinced that this is in large part due to their deeper understanding of the subject, not because they have learnt off by heart various answers to equations.
Instead of showing students a random list of sums, our approach is always to contextualise the maths by putting it into real world context. We look at things that are common in our lives, such as football cards or shopping trips, which brings authenticity to the subject, and helps further the students’ understanding of it.
Building on the concept of contextualisation, we utilise the Concrete Pictorial Abstract (CPA) method, which draws on the notion that to understand something conceptually, you need to do it first. Using pictorial representations you can then build in numerals and symbols and assign meaning to those.
Our Early Childhood students that are learning pure numbers will use familiar items such as teddies or cars to practice counting. They would draw pictures of six teddies, then write the numeral 6 and spell it out, joining the dots to connect them all and thus developing a comprehensive understanding of the number and what it really means.
No matter the age group, every time we start a new inquiry, we use concrete materials to develop a deeper understanding.
Something that is central to the International Baccalaureate model is the focus on inquiry, encouraging students to construct their own understanding by giving them opportunities to discover for themselves.
There are numerous studies which show that by discovering things yourself, understanding and knowledge can enter your memory in a totally different way. According to Brown & Campione, “Evidence indicates that students can attain deeper understanding of science content and processes when they engage in inquiry”.
“Ultimately, we want to encourage students to find the answer themselves.”
What’s more, according to educational psychologist Dale H. Schunk, problem-based learning “engages students in learning and helps to motivate them”, requiring students to “think creatively and bring their knowledge to bear in unique ways.” This method is particularly useful for activities that have no one correct solution.
While there are certain types of maths where inquiry is obsolete, there are areas, such as triangle angles or fractions, where discovery can play an important role. In a recent class, one of my students discovered they could add fractions that equal more than one, by using Numicon shapes. As teacher, your role is always to ask probing questions to keep them on track and prevent them from going in the wrong direction. But ultimately, we want to encourage students to find the answer themselves, helping to develop a deeper understanding and with it an eagerness to find out more.
Another element that is considered important by the IB is the notion of peer modelling, showing others how to do something by doing it first. This is particularly relevant for areas of maths where inquiry is less important, such as the column method for multiplication.
When viewing someone else modelling a particular behaviour, if you believe that person to be capable then you will in turn believe that how they are doing it is the right way to do it. However, this concept is strengthened amongst peer groups, where students are generally considered to be of similar capabilities, therefore by watching one another do something they are instilled with the belief that they too can do it.
“Above all else, teachers themselves need to show enthusiasm for mathematics.”
With peer modelling, the teacher can carry out a task and then get some of the students of varying abilities to work together to model another example for the class. The result being that the rest of the students will then have an increased sense of self-belief; if their peers can do it, so can they!
Above all else, teachers themselves need to show enthusiasm for mathematics. When students see this modelled, they too begin to feel a sense of excitement for the subject and all the wonders that it entails.