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Making it count: inspiring a love of maths
25 February 2022
Recent research has revealed the phenomenon of maths anxiety—defined by the Maths Anxiety Trust as a ‘negative emotional reaction to mathematics, leading to varying degrees of helplessness, panic, and mental disorganization.’ It can cause anything from mild tension to intense dread and even physical symptoms. What’s more, such anxiety can have an impact on an individuals’ confidence in using maths in everyday life.
The pandemic has, unfortunately, only contributed to this problem. Our own research among maths teachers, principals, and other educators revealed that 78% felt remote learning had impacted on student confidence in maths, and 75% believed that school closures had affected children’s understanding of mathematical language.
I have talked a lot previously—including in my last article—about the power of language to help people make sense of the world around them. After all, language can inspire us by providing us with the words we need to express ourselves.
But maths is equally important. It provides a key foundation to a child’s whole educational journey, and underpins so many aspects of our lives, often without us even realizing it. Despite what we may presume—and indeed, what many may fear—maths isn’t just about algorithms, symbols, and sums. At its heart, it’s about problem solving, building patterns, and spotting connections. It can help us to validate facts and bring stories to life by providing a sense of perspective.
Yet in the UK, only one in four Britons of working age is said to be functionally numerate, which could be costing the UK approximately £388m per week. According to analysis from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), adults in the United States performed well below the average in numeracy. OECD’s 2018 PISA results further highlighted that in 24 of the countries and economies studied, more than 50% of students scored below Level 2 in mathematics—the level whereby ‘students can interpret and recognize, without direct instructions, how a (simple) situation can be represented mathematically.’
This shows why it is so important that we take steps to banish the fear and motivate people about the power of maths in unlocking knowledge, ideas, and experiences. It isn’t just good for individuals, but for society.
So, how can we do this? Firstly, we need to rethink how to teach maths. Research into maths anxiety has shown that the level of confidence a pupil has in a maths teacher can have a significant impact on anxiety levels. Equally, all too often, maths is taught in formulaic, abstract ways that aren’t applicable in real life.
Teaching maths should be visual, creative and collaborative—like storytelling. It should give children the vocabulary to reason with and solve problems, and equip them with the right understanding of symbols and numbers so that they are able to use maths to share experiences. Embracing gamification and linking maths to everyday scenarios—even simple tasks such as tidying, cooking, playing sports, or organizing—can really bring it to life. The good news is, there is appetite among educators for this. Our research showed that 86% of schools are keen to encourage more creativity in maths lessons, and 95% said that promoting curiosity and enjoyment in maths should be a priority. I’m hopeful we’ll soon start to see fascinating new teaching methods having a lasting impact on young people’s perception and engagement with maths.
Secondly, we need students the recognize the opportunities maths provides. That’s why we’re launching our new #WonderOfMaths campaign; to help excite students about how maths underpins everything they do, both at home in their everyday lives, and beyond. We’ll be asking maths experts and influencers, as well as education partners, to create videos of themselves and their students, thinking about how maths can truly help them to navigate and understand problems in all walks of life. Look out for more information about this campaign on our social media channels very soon.
At OUP, our very purpose is to help transform people’s lives and inspire them through education. Maths is a core skill that can provide a solid basis for future learning and enable young people to truly fulfil their potential. If we can make maths more accessible, enjoyable, and relevant in the real world, we start to remove some of the fear around maths, and hopefully set people on the path towards future success.