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. 🙂