Bad at Maths: I Don't Think So

February 1, 2016


From executive leadership workshops to personal lifestyle development. From athletes to insurers. The work I have be involved in this past week is applicable everywhere but it’s most rewarding when I can help the “the girl” as I like to call her. Being a good parent is always a challenge. Different in some way everyday, it is often where all my knowledge of psychology, skill refinement, behaviour change, behavioral neuroscience and performance analysis goes out of the window and I end up saying something like “because I said so…” when my bright young thing challenges my sometimes irrational blaming, demands and reasoning.


The girl is facing the most academically challenging two years of her life so far… two years of assessment and examination culminating in the sitting of final high school exams, which, if she succeeds will provide a foundation for great things for the future. This, therefore, turns my focus to the management of mind for our children. How can we help them through for now, and in the future, to perform at their potential?


First things first… we parents often have to confront the “why” argument that our kids come up with… “Why do I need to know this stuff?” “Will I ever use this in the future?” It’s a debate I remember having myself when I was a teenager. My answer is simple. “It is very true that you might not need trig. or stats. or square roots or any of that stuff ever again, but the way the world tends to revolve you need some basic maths qualifications to get your foot in the door in many walks of life, so you might as well acquire them now rather than find it comes back to hurt you later.”


On a deeper level maths is about reasoning. Without some grasp of maths how can we construct an argument through the use of logic? How can we represent models of how we see the world when we return from our travels or something interesting happens to us? In his book entitled “Innumeracy: mathematical illiteracy and its consequences” J. Paulos states “without a mathematical perspective we are subject to a host of cognitive ills such as an exaggerated appreciation for meaningless coincidence, a credulous acceptance of pseudoscience and an inability to recognize social tradeoffs”. In fact, I get very disheartened when I hear people think that they should avoid studying a certain subject (such as psychology for example) because undergraduate research projects are beyond them… “I can’t do the stats” “I’m hopeless at maths”. My most compelling argument to anyone I meet is… if I can you can. This is basic logic from a reformed mathsaphobic. Actually when I sat my GSCE maths I was grouped and labelled as a child that could only hope to achieve a maximum of a grade C, seems the world around me was affirming my belief, girls like you can’t do maths. It never really made sense to me then, and certainly doesn’t anymore.


Many of us are fearful of maths. In fact so many of us are scared of maths that there is a whole area of research which looks at the concept of maths anxiety. A fear of maths – mathsaphobia. It sounds crazy that people suffer great emotional disturbance around trigonometry and times tables but it’s common and, more importantly, it affects maths performance, academic results and can diminish bright futures.



What does mathsaphobia look like?


There is a very common theme to the perception of ability in maths. It is passed on to us grown-ups from the grown-ups that came before us and on to our future grown-ups. I came across a great representation of human performance while reading some research papers the other day. We can, in fact, think of any skilled performance as a simple mathematical equation:


Pr = (P1 x P2) – SI


(adapted from Allen, 1998)


Where Pr is performance, P1 is potential; P2 is preparation and SI is self -interference… are you still with me or would you like me to repeat that once more?? I think it’s a fair assessment that when being taught maths our general thinking is around P1- potential. Some are thought of as gifted in maths, and they may well have some magic DNA that is different to the rest of us (show me the evidence for that!). Others “just can’t do maths” for the same magical lack of said DNA (again, I want to see the evidence!). On the other hand, let’s look at P2- preparation. We attribute poor maths to that teacher in school who just didn’t want to be there or the rote system of learning or the modern approach designed to overcome general poor performance in this area. As the equation suggests, both potential and preparation are contributing factors but what proportion of our performance is affected by SI- self -interference? Are students (or any other performers for that matter) thinking in terms of SI- self -interference? Can we take a look at thoughts that detrimentally affect performance and change those thoughts so that they become an addition to the equation and not a subtraction?


How can we start to overcome mathsaphobia?


In order to begin to overcome mathsaphobia we need to be open to viewing our brains as a muscle that can be trained to develop. The more we train, the better we will be. Adaptations that we can see when we train in the gym don’t come easy – they take some hard work and this is also the same for training for solving maths problems.


 Expect the challenge.


It can be expected that, at first, being good at maths will feel very, very difficult. If it is expected, then there is no need to be stressed, frustrated, anxious or upset about it. It is hard, we know that. It’s ok that you can’t do this when you start. That’s what learning is.


Thoughts are things.


What you think is what you are –  don’t underestimate the power of what you say to yourself. If you say “I am bad at maths and will never be any good at it” you will be correct. If you say, “I find these maths questions challenging but I’ll follow the steps I know that will lead me to the correct answer” you will end up with the correct answer. I think it’s pretty clear to see which way of thinking will lead to success.


Trust your training.


On exam day, we’ve done our prep. We’ve trained hard at maths. We’re ready to get the job done. Tell yourself to trust your training. You have everything in your mind that you need to solve any of the problems that will come up. It might not be a walk in the park, but exams aren’t designed to be. The most effective thinking just before your exam starts is to tell yourself that you are ready.


I hope that this article will help change any rigid views that you have of your, or your child’s ability in maths or any subject for that matter. Remember that anything that you encounter is in your hands to perceive as a challenge or a trouble, in general we like a challenge, so take the challenge option.

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