Sweaty palms? A racing heart? A lump in the back of your throat? Bobby Seagull, maths teacher, author, TV presenter and Chair of the Power of Maths Roundtable gives his take on maths anxiety.
The average person on the street may not have heard of the term maths anxiety, but it is likely they or someone they know may have suffered from it. Writing off the cuff, maths anxiety is a negative emotional response when dealing with maths. It can happen to children as well as adults, whether in the classroom doing long division or in the real world when splitting a restaurant bill.
While academic discussions around maths anxiety first appeared as 'number anxiety' in 1957,1
it is a concept that has been expressed for centuries. There is even a nursery rhyme dating from a 1570 Elizabethan document called A description of the Admirable Table of Logarithms written by Scottish mathematician John Napier:
"Multiplication is vexation, division is bad. The rule of three doth puzzle me, and practice drives me mad." 2
How can we tackle maths anxiety?
On Friday 5 July, we had a gathering of minds that would put the Avengers into the shade! I was privileged to chair the Power of Maths Roundtable, where leading influencers from education, maths, business and charities came together to pool their ideas.
As someone who has been in the classroom as a student, and now as a classroom teacher, I have seen firsthand how maths anxiety can damage the confidence and competence of young people with maths. This can have the negative impact of harming the ability of adults to deal with maths and numbers for the rest of their lives. That is why this Roundtable was so important.
Key highlights and takeaways from the Roundtable...
- Associate Professor Sue Johnston-Wilder, from the University of Warwick, set the academic understanding of maths anxiety as a “feeling of tension and anxiety that interferes with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of mathematical problems in ordinary life and academic situations.” 3 She also personally described it as an “emotional handbrake”, something that can slow down an individual’s engagement with maths. Our Roundtable was seeking solutions to removing this handbrake.
- Mike Ellicock, CEO of the charity National Numeracy, demonstrated that maths anxiety is an issue that does not limit itself to the classroom and school children. Nearly 50% of UK adults have the numeracy skills expected of an 11-year-old (a sample of adults could not correctly calculate 5% of £9). That one in two adults really struggle with maths is shocking. These same adults would most likely be competent with their reading and writing. So, while this highlights something about mathematical competence, it shows the impacts of maths anxiety in preventing adults from performing what should be basic calculations.
- There was enlivened discussion as delegates explored the solutions at the chalkface, with an expert panel of teachers, academics and leading thinkers in maths education sharing their take on how to better identify, prevent and treat maths anxiety within the school gates.
- Tom Harbour, founder and CEO of Maths with Parents, showed how improving parental engagement in schools can help with overall academic engagement, and a way to tackle maths anxiety.
- Dr Nike Folayan, founder of the Association of Black and Minority Ethnic Engineers (AFBE-UK), showed that we need to challenge stereotypes about mathematicians.
Personally, I believe one of the most damaging myths that feeds into maths anxiety is that of the 'maths brain' – that only a certain kind of person ‘can do maths’. People have positive and negative experiences of maths and this can shape their view of themselves as both maths learners and users.
One thing I understood from many of the discussions at the Roundtable is that, to become competent at maths, we need to be in our ‘growth zone’. This is where we are out of our comfort zone. This means, out of necessity, it will feel uncomfortable. Tackling maths anxiety requires all learners to accept that this feeling is not unusual.
Sharon Hague, Senior Vice-President for UK Schools at Pearson, concluded the Roundtable with the words: “We are all here because we really want to build a number-confident, resilient nation.”
The Power of Maths Roundtable showed that there are many groups of driven people, who want to help tackle maths anxiety. Change can and will happen, but society won’t transform overnight.
This is not the end of the conversation, but one that we all need to continue to fight.
This piece was first published on the Pearson Schools Blog on October 9th 2019.
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About the author
Bobby Seagull is a mathematician, teacher and writer. He appeared on the television programme University Challenge in 2017 and, in 2018, on Monkman & Seagull's Genius Guide to Britain. His second book, The Life-Changing Magic of Numbers, was published in 2018.
Bobby chaired Pearson’s Power of Maths Roundtable, which brought together leading influencers to explore how to tackle maths anxiety and build more confident and resilient learners, teachers and communities.
1 Dreger, R. M., & Aiken, L. R. (1957). The identification of number anxiety in a college population. Journal of Educational Psychology, 48, 344-351. Available from: http://www.scirp.org/(S(351jmbntvnsjt1aadkposzje))/journal/paperinformation.aspx?paperid=33528
2 Napier, J. (c. 1570). A description of the Admirable Table of Logarithmes.
3 Hopko, D., Mahadevan, R., Bare, R., Hunt, M. (2003). 'The Abbreviated Math Anxiety Scale (AMAS): Construction, Validity, and Reliability' in Assessment. 10. 178-82. Available from: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1073191103010002008