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3 Reasons Why People Struggle With Maths

mathsMaths is one of those subjects that people believe they are either good or rubbish at, with very little – if any – space for the middle ground.

Those who are good at maths, tend to take it for granted. Many assume that if they understand it, so should everyone else. Those who are not particularly ‘mathematically minded’, tend to adopt an attitude that they simply ‘don’t get maths’ and there is nothing that can be done about it.

Thinking about countries with widely accessible education, people are generally expected to be literate and numerate.  There is no such pressure relating to other subjects – for example, biology, history or geography may simply be ‘not your thing’ and no-one blinks an eyelid. It is perfectly possible to live happily with very limited knowledge in those areas, but lack of mathematical skills may be limiting in a daily life. We need maths to be able to make sure we are not being overcharged by a trader, market-stall seller, or to check we get the right change in a coffee shop – and this is just the beginning (in case someone may want to argue that paying by card removes a need to be able to count, this is not the point).

Why do some people struggle with maths and even feel intimidated by it?

I can think of at least three main reasons:

1. Their parents were really bad at maths.

If a child brings maths homework from school, asks their mum or dad for help and the response is, ‘I don’t know how to do it’, how does the child feel? Children look up to their parents, they want to be like their mum or dad, so if their mum or dad can’t do it, how could a child hope he/she can? That’s your confidence gone even before you started. Learning anything requires confidence, whether it is maths or riding a bicycle. It is much easier to learn new things when you believe you can.

(A point of clarification : I am thinking about primary school children and basic maths here; I understand that not every parent may still remember his/her algebra or trigonometry.)

Learning maths is a bit like building a staircase  – you have to start from the floor level and go up by adding one step at the time; it is impossible to start building a staircase from mid-air, with the first few steps missing. This is why early maths learning is so very important. If someone never had confidence in their basic maths ability, they are likely to struggle with more complex concepts.

2. Someone made them feel stupid (and it hurt).

It sounds awful, I know, but it happens. It doesn’t take much to put a child off maths. Imagine someone giving a wrong answer in a maths lesson and the rest of the class bursting out laughing. Or someone losing their patience while explaining something to a child and saying e.g. ‘Are you really so stupid that you can’t understand it?’  No-one likes being laughed at.  No-one wants to feel stupid.  Such experiences hurt; even worse – they stick.  If someone hears often enough that they are ‘just too stupid to get it’, they will soon believe it and won’t even try to understand the subject. There is a lot of research out there on how such events can produce deep-seated negative beliefs about one’s abilities that can persist well into adulthood. This is one of the reasons why some people say ‘I just have a mental block about maths’ – they are not making it up, they really do feel stuck.

3. They had a rubbish maths teacher.

Like with every profession, there are some excellent teachers, some average ones and some who are just rubbish. I hope I am not offending anyone’s feelings here, but I’ve had some absolutely brilliant teachers and some who were just hopeless. I was very lucky with my maths, biology and geography teachers throughout my education, but my first chemistry teacher was so bad, that despite my secondary school teacher’s best efforts, I was never as good at chemistry as I could have been. I also hated history because every single history teacher I had for some reason specialised in shouting through most of the lessons.

Explaining something is communicating a concept or an idea and standard rules of communication apply. If a message is to be understood, it has to be clear and easy to understand by an intended recipient. If someone cannot follow what is being explained to them, it is not their fault, it is a fault of a person who is not explaining it right.

There are usually more ways than one in which any concept can be explained and it is up to a teacher to adjust the explanation in such a way that it is understood by a student. If someone says they can’t understand what’s being explained to them, the worst possible scenario is to keep repeating the original explanation word for word. This usually does not help and results in a person, who is already struggling with grasping the concept, losing interest and switching off. As Albert Einstein is quoted saying, ‘Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is insanity.’

Are you doomed forever?

So what can you do if maths is not ‘your thing’? Blame it on your parents, difficult childhood and sub-standard education? Live the rest of your life feeling insecure and guilty – if you are a parent – for not being able to help your child with their homework?

The answer is NO, it doesn’t have to be this way.

It is never too late to learn maths and maths is not really that difficult. It is all a question of having it explained properly and a lot of helpful resources are easily available – you can check out Collins maths  books (www.collins.co.uk – from primary school to A levels) or just pop in to your nearest WH Smith and see what they have. One on-line resource I really like is www.math-drills.com – free to download maths worksheets, excellent for supplementing maths practice at home, for all ages, from children to older students.

Maths For Parents – there to help

If there are any particular maths questions that you would like to ask, join my brand-new Facebook page Maths For Parents. I have created it thinking about parents who may not feel confident enough to explain maths to their children. The idea is that I explain various maths questions to you in the easiest possible way, so that you know how to help your children with their maths homework. Just like that. All I need is you posting questions on the page, so do come and visit.

Please leave a comment, I’d really like to know what your thoughts are – whether you are a mathematical genius or someone who prefers to stay away from numbers. 🙂

16 thoughts on “3 Reasons Why People Struggle With Maths

  1. Great post. I identify with a lot of what you talk about in this piece. I was badly taught, left to feel stupid and almost entirely nobody would take time to explain things that simply didn’t make any sense to me.

    So while I’m a person who has said ‘I simply don’t have a maths brain’ I don’t believe that it’s too late for me to learn and grow. So thanks for the post and encouragement to keep learning.

    1. Hi Simon,

      Thank you for a lovely comment. You are absolutely right, it is never too late to learn. One of my friends has just graduated from a medical school – as a mother of 3 children (one of them at university now), she started somewhat later than your typical student and now has been offered her first job as a doctor. I hope that can give you a little bit of inspiration 🙂

      Never, ever let anyone make you feel stupid. Just like there are no stupid questions, only stupid answers, I believe there are no bad students, only bad teachers.

      Learning maths is a bit like trying to build a staircase – you can’t skip steps, you need to add them in order, one after another. If something doesn’t make sense to you, don’t move on until it becomes clear, or you will struggle and be discouraged again.

      There are so many resources available these days, from tutorials on various schools’ websites to maths teaching sites… you can quite easily pick where to start from. When I’m trying to brush up on my chemistry to help my son with his homework, I tend to search for kids’ learning websites, because they usually explain things in a very easy way (and I did have a rubbish chemistry teacher when I was at school 😀 )

      Another thing worth doing is popping into WHSmith (assuming you are in the UK) or any other book shop selling educational books, and browsing through various maths revision guides and workbooks. I’m sure you will find something that will make maths easier to follow. If I could recommend something – there is a great book by Carol Vorderman ‘Help Your Kids With Maths’ . While it is intended for parents who have forgotten most of their maths, I think it makes a good study book for anyone. (See this link: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Help-Your-Maths-Carol-Vorderman/dp/1409355713/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1442508686&sr=8-1&keywords=carol+vorderman+help+your+kids+with+maths)

      Good luck!

  2. Great article. Thanks for sharing.

    In my view maths is all about practice. The more you practice the better you get. Unfortunately, may kids don’t try and master the subject before moving to the next one.

    I totally agree with your thoughts on the importance of having a good maths teacher. You comment on ” If someone cannot follow what is being explained to them, it is not their fault, it is a fault of a person who is not explaining it right.” is spot one.

    1. Hi,
      Thank you for taking time to post a comment. It is very true that maths is a bit like sports – you do get better with practice. On this note, I find it somewhat strange that some primary/elementary schools are now trying to get away without setting homework for children, claiming it does not benefit their learning. What is the logic in that?

      If there is no homework at all, how are the children supposed to practise what they learn? They don’t even bring their school workbooks home, so how are parents to know where and how they could help?

  3. I love maths. Maths are fair, and you are right or wrong. What’s not to like? I have always been good at numbers. I think that, once you ‘get’ maths, then you will be fine forever. BTW, how is the 11+ prep?

    1. I have always been a bit of a maths geek. When I was at school, maths was my favourite homework, I even did some extra maths problems just to have an excuse to postpone having to get on with other subjects. I remember I had a friend with whom we spent hours on the phone discussing how we solved a particular maths problem. The most interesting discussions were those involving analytical geometry, e.g. describing over the phone the exact position of a sphere within a cone, we were completely mad… LOL! We are now on Easter break so 11+ is the ‘highlight’ – not sure my son agrees. We’ve done some comprehension today and a maths paper from a 10-11 Bond book. I’ve told him the new deal is he only gets to play on Xbox when he does well enough in test papers we do at home. Amazing what Xbox motivation can do to a child! By the way, do you know that some selective school make their past exams papers available on their websites?

  4. I’ve had some good math teachers and some really lousy ones. I agree with these, but I might also add getting bored with numbers. Which is my case. 😛

    1. I guess that is perfectly possible! Although I could not possibly relate to getting bored with numbers – I got assimilated, you see… And had a secret crush on my maths teacher 😉

  5. I just ‘Liked’ your Maths page, Beata! What a great concept! I never liked Math and I suspect it’s mainly cos of lousy teachers. I do remember enjoying solving Geometry and Trigonometry problems though in high school. But in college, I almost failed my calculus / barely passed it and still don’t understand a thing about it. My professor spoke to the board and did everything so fast, simply assuming everyone was brilliant and understood whatever the hell he was explaining. I just hope my son fares better and ends up with better teachers who will nurture the interest, his skills and show the practical side of Math. Keeping fingers crossed!

    1. Thank you Joy, that’s very kind! Some people are really bad at explaining, they assume that just because they understand something, so does everyone else. I hope you son will have an inspiring maths teacher, but if something is lacking, there are a lot of things you can do with him at home to keep his interest in maths going. 🙂

  6. I’ve never been ‘bad’ at maths, but the English language was always my first love. It was combining my love of language with studying sociology that made me realise the importance of numbers, even when you think maths is irrelevant. Sometimes real-life examples – beyond shopping budgets – can really ignite a child’s passion for maths.

    1. Very true, Lucy. I think a lot of teachers are so pressed to steam ahead with the curriculum that they simply run out of time to incorporate in their teaching examples which would make maths less abstract and easier to relate to. Thank you for commenting! 🙂

  7. All the time I was at school, I was lousy at Maths. Barely scraped by. If not for Maths, I’d have been an outstanding student. Numbers did not make sense to me. When would I ever use them in life if I was going to be a writer?
    I grew up and went into advertising. Had a marketing oriented client. I learnt that numbers signified sales and people, habits and attitudes, and likes and dislikes. Numbers spoke and sang to me. Percentages told me stories. I became addicted to numbers, fascinated by what they meant. I turned into a Maths whiz. Worked out statistics and added, divided, multiplied numbers in my head while others used machines. Numbers were an adventure. Words are still my first love, but numbers come in a close second. So, to all those kids who have Maths problems, try to show them what numbers mean, visualize them rather than the same old boring methods.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your story, Penelope. What an inspiration – from ‘barely scraping by’ in maths to speaking about numbers with real passion. Wow! You are the best proof that it is never to late to learn maths and that everyone can do it, as long as they believe they can. And yes, you are so right – a lot of kids have problems with maths, because it is just all too abstract. It is very difficult to learn anything if you can’t see how it fits in with real life. I’ll try my best to avoid the old, boring ways…. Thank you again for taking time to write in – I really appreciate it. 🙂

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