Should teachers question parents when they say they ‘can’t do maths’? Explore the significance of maths anxiety among parents and get tips to make sure all children believe in their abilities.
Hearing a child utter the words ‘I can’t do maths’ wouldn’t surprise many teachers. Hearing a parent utter the words ‘Don’t worry, I could never do maths’ wouldn’t surprise many teachers either. Therefore, if we want more children to succeed in maths, we have to change attitudes among parents as well as pupils.
As teachers and school leaders, should we question parents when they say they ‘can’t do maths’ and should we ever believe any individual pupil simply ‘can’t’?
A detrimental outcome of this stereotypical view, is identified by Carol Dweck (2006), who states that:
"Viewing intellectual ability as a gift (a fixed entity) led students to question their ability and lose motivation when they encountered setbacks. In contrast, viewing intellectual ability as a quality that could be developed, led them to seek active and effective remedies in the face of difficulty."
Carol Dweck, 2006
Achievement in maths is influenced in the same way as any challenge we face throughout life, where if you tell yourself you can’t run, it is likely you won’t finish the race!
The idea that ‘everyone can do maths’ is the leading principle of White Rose Maths, and the aim is to build a whole new culture of deep understanding, that develops confidence and competence in maths. A key belief is that, no matter what their starting points, learners everywhere can achieve excellence. When parents and teachers give children a pre-empted label of being ‘low ability’, they are likely to have lower expectations of these pupils, not to mention the pupils having low expectations of themselves. We should not only expect excellence from those we consider to have ‘it.’ In fact all of our pupils have ‘it’- ‘It’ being the potential to develop their understanding of mathematical concepts further.
Leading academic, Jo Boaler refers to the incredible potential the brain has to grow and change and the powerful impact of growth mindset messages upon pupils’ attainment. The mindset messages that we communicate to our pupils through learning inside and outside the classroom is key to developing motivated and resilient learners, who have an understanding that feeling challenged and stretched is part of an effective education and that making mistakes is an inevitable part of progressing towards being increasingly capable and flexible-thinking mathematicians. This can be achieved when we identify and address the cause of parents’ negative perceptions of maths.
Beilock (2015) communicated the importance of the messages pupils receive, as it is not their own or their parents’ maths knowledge that harms pupil’s performance in maths, but the parent’s anxiety. Parents who feel high levels of anxiety towards maths are likely to communicate this through negative perceptions of the subject, particularly when supporting their children with homework. We want to create a mutual understanding between teachers and parents. We should not convey sympathetic messages such as ‘you’re not a maths person,’ or ‘don’t worry, you’re better at other subjects’, as these are harmful messages, which almost provide an excuse for pupils to accept they will fail in maths.
We should be reinforcing positive messages, such as ‘if you continue to work hard, you can do it!’ and ‘maths is an exciting subject, that I believe you can succeed in’. When I was working in an international school, parents attended regular workshops where they were introduced to mastery approaches to our curriculum. This exposed parents to new content and strategies to help reduce any anxiety when supporting their children’s learning.
The school also encouraged children to develop a ‘love of learning maths,’ where they could relate excitement and creativity with their experiences of maths. Teachers and pupils created short videos of themselves using maths in innovative ways within real-life contexts at home, as part of a whole school emphasis on practical homework tasks.
The result? In the school’s most recent pupil survey, nearly 50% of pupils referred to maths as their favourite subject. Achieving this shift in teacher, parent and pupil mindset, is fundamental to the achievements our pupils make in maths.
If we want our children to believe they can succeed, we have to support parents at the same time. Involving parents in workshops and using positive language are two simple steps that will help children to believe EVERYONE CAN achieve in maths!
Carol Dweck (2006) ‘Is Math a Gift? Beliefs That Put Females at Risk. In S J Ceci & W Williams Why aren’t more women in science? Top researchers debate the evidence. Washington, American Psychological Association
Erin A. Maloney, Gerardo Ramirez, Elizabeth A. Gunderson, Susan C. Levine, Sian L. Beilock (2015) Intergenerational Effects of Parents’ Math Anxiety on Children’s Math Achievement and Anxiety.
Jo Boaler (2013) Ability and Mathematics: the mindset revolution that is reshaping education
Jo Boaler (2016) ‘Mathematical Mindsets’
About the author
Hannah Jones is a maths specialist at White Rose Maths.
White Rose Maths and Pearson have developed Power Maths, a whole-class mastery programme, written specifically for UK classrooms.
To support schools in building a positive maths culture and bringing everyone on board, Pearson have developed two fact sheets that can be shared with parents to help them understand mastery and growth mindset.
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