Maths

More maths alone won’t solve our ‘anti-maths mindset’

Changing the national narrative that maths is dry and unrewarding will require more than forcing students to sit the subject longer, write Jo Boaler and Jeffery Quaye

Changing the national narrative that maths is dry and unrewarding will require more than forcing students to sit the subject longer, write Jo Boaler and Jeffery Quaye

Jeffrey Quaye

19 Apr 2023, 12:30

Rishi Sunak has relaunched his plan to ensure maths is studied up to 16 in England

On Monday, prime minister, Rishi Sunak reiterated his aspiration that all children should study maths up to age 18 and triggered a national outpouring of scepticism. An avalanche of newspaper headlines and broadcast discussions scorned the suggestion.

The prime minister offered the British people an opportunity to indulge in something of a national pastime: perpetuating the narrative that maths is hard, people who enjoy it are either brainy or plain weird, and nobody uses half the concepts once they’ve left school anyway.

We disagree. Mathematics is a beautiful subject and a universal language. Master it and the possibilities for a fulfilling career are endless. The application of mathematics allows the world to solve a wide variety of problems in medical science, engineering, business, telecommunications and entertainment. Mathematics supports human development, life skills and technology, aiding problem-solving, logical reasoning and creativity.

However, culturally acceptable negative attitudes mean many students in the UK shy away from it. A National Numeracy report suggests that ‘negative attitudes, rather than a lack of innate talent, are at the root cause of our numeracy crisis’. As maths teachers and researchers, we have encountered these negative attitudes at first hand, demonstrated by parents and teachers.

The UK’s history of teaching maths as a set of procedures to be learned at speed, along with widespread myths of the ‘maths brain’ may be in part to blame. Certainly, if you were to listen to many of the conversations spawned by the prime minister’s comments, you’d be forgiven for thinking that all maths teaching has been dry and unrewarding for the vast majority. Moaning about maths is the norm.

Sunak’s determination to ‘change this anti-mathematics mindset’ is not, of itself, a bad thing. However, it is important to understand the complex issues linked to negative attitudes to the subject if maths skills are to be viewed in the same positive light as essential key skills.

Moaning about maths is the norm

Currently, England lags behind other OECD countries such as France, Germany, Canada, Finland, the United States, Japan and Australia, where all pupils routinely study maths until age 18. In the UK, of students achieving grade 4 or above in mathematics at GCSE, 20 per cent go on to study AS or A level maths.

Earlier governments have attempted redress. The Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government between 2010 and 2015 published a core maths policy aimed at attracting 40 per cent of students with grade 4 or above at GCSE to follow a core maths programme until age 18. The policy has not been realised, in part because of a lack of high-quality specialist maths teachers.

If we are to combat the negativity surrounding the subject, there is no point in giving students more years of mathematics unless we make those years enjoyable and rewarding.  

Positive attitudes towards mathematics correlate with achievement in mathematics, and parental attitudes towards maths have a strong effect on pupils’ attitudes towards maths. Research has shown that pupils’ negative attitudes are developed in the early years and that by the end of secondary education many pupils have developed negative attitudes that are damaging to their learning, mostly characterised by disengagement, anxiety and lack of confidence.

We welcome a renewed focus on improving numeracy skills and increasing pupils’ engagement with learning mathematics until 18. But to achieve the vision set out by the prime minister, it is important for all pupils to experience the sort of high-quality maths teaching which leads to increased confidence and enjoyment in the subject.

Teachers need time to learn, and we urgently need to invest in high-quality professional learning programmes. Greater investment in adult numeracy more widely should also equip parents to support their children at home with maths work, breaking the generational ‘anti-maths mindset’.

Finally, an overall change in the narrative by politicians, teachers, and parents is necessary to drive positive attitudes towards mathematics and make maths one of the most loved subjects in England. We need to change the idea that it is OK to be bad at maths, to the idea that it is super ‘cool’ to be good at maths.

The incalculable value of mathematics in day-to-day activities is too significant to ignore!

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5 Comments

  1. The PM will never achieve his goal until all references to math as “ugh” in adverts and media such as films are banned. Attitudes are fixed at young ages and to watch a bunch of school kids saying things such as “ugh, next class is maths” just reinforces the idea that math is hard. We stopped TV adverts for cigarettes, so why not ban such anti math expressions.

    • Young children are naturally curious, and the absolutist, dry, dehumanise curriculum that has been formally forced down their throats at a ridiculously early age is to blame for the withdrawal from engagement. It is critical to stop the humanity draining, numeracy vomit at the start.
      No amount of hitting people with the same hammer until they are 18 (16-18 is not compulsory so stop pretending it is) will change the current situation.

  2. “Negative attitudes, rather than a lack of innate talent, are at the root cause of our numeracy crisis.”

    I think there’s a lot of truth to this statement. If from an early age you’re told constantly that maths is hard, pointless, useless, confusing, that forms a core memory and you will be adverse to it before even getting past simple functions.

    I had the same experience before taking physics in year 11 — all I’d hear was how hard it all was. I just decided to believe it was fun and easy – and kept that mindset all the way. And believe it or not, it did turn out to be fun and easy. However, physics is very math heavy. Luckily I liked maths and mastered those skills in order to excel in physics.

    Maths are incredibly important as it not only teaches abstract thinking, but mastering maths has a knock-on effect to other subjects. For example biology is basically chemistry, chemistry is basically physics, and physics is basically maths. Maths runs through all the courses.

    My statistics professor in Uni made it fun by using casino games as a backdrop to understanding probability.

  3. Dear All,

    MANY thanks to everyone.

    QUESTION:
    HOW CAN AN EARTH-WIDE NETWORK OF ‘MATH(S) ENCOURAGERS’ BE GROWN, IN ORDER TO RECRUIT CELEBRITIES WILLING TO COUNTER THE NEGATIVITY THAT BEDEVILS THIS NOBLE DISCIPLINE— ITS PRACTICE, DEVELOPMENT AND DESERVED RECOGNITION?

    COMMENT:
    TEACHERS AT EVERY LEVEL CANNOT DO THIS PROMOTION ON THEIR OWN—EVEN WHEN THE VERY, CONTINUED EXISTENCE OF ALL LIFE COULD WELL BE AT STAKE—IF OUR SCIENCES FAIL TO USE THE INSIGHTS OF MATH(S) AS THEY UNFOLD!

    Please ‘keep up the good fight’.
    Kevin, Gayndah, Australia.

  4. I spent the summer introducing students in 3 programs to “Playground Math” with several grad students from UC Santa Barbara. We used 10 based Number Wheels permanently painted on the playground for Counting, Addition, Subtraction, Multiplication and Fraction fundamentals. With 80% spanish speaking kids, we used Simple Number Language (11 words to 100) and games like Simon Says, Monkey in the Middle, and Soccer to make it fun. Kids self-assessed themselves with an improvement of “I love math” at 22% and a 15% increase in “I am good in math” in one month. The kids called me Mister Numbers and really enjoyed learning sets of math facts as they jumped on patterns and used “Chutes and Ladders” to solve math problems. There are two free Wheel Math apps that they enjoyed while learning addition and multiplication. No classroom (the great outdoors) for these kids. We did many videos of them having fun playing and learning math as they moved.