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Maths anxiety just doesn’t add up

Saturday 10 December  2005 


How many times have you heard someone say, 'I'm no good at maths'. Debbie Richards believes being bad at maths has become a badge of honour and she thinks it's time to do something about it. She attributes this common refrain to a phenomenon called 'maths anxiety' and suggests some corrective strategies. Windows Media Player Audio File

Program Transcript

Maths. Does mention of the word make you want to run the other way or raise the hairs on the back of your neck? It does for many. Or do you belong to the other camp who’ve learnt that the best strategy at parties is to say 'Oh, I was never any good at maths'. Being bad at maths has become a badge of honour in our society. But is this healthy? Shouldn’t we be doing something about the phenomenon known as maths anxiety?

How do you know if you’re a sufferer? Well if you go out of your way to avoid anything to do with calculations or solving problems with numbers in them, then you have maths anxiety. We all had subjects at school that we disliked. But the fear of maths is stronger, more widespread and more persistent, often lasting a lifetime. Many hide behind the catch phrase, 'I don’t need maths to survive'. But do people make the same statements about history, languages, chemistry or music? Parents will often assist with homework even in areas they’ve never learnt before. Not so with maths. Mature-age students can be found in almost any degree at university, but this is highly unlikely in maths degrees. It seems that when you become separated from maths, which typically starts in upper primary school, the relationship is likely to end in irretrievable breakdown and divorce.

The good news is, you’re not alone. Fear of maths is widespread. Google returns over 140,000 hits for "maths anxiety". The pervasiveness of the problem might encourage you to believe that there is really something to fear and that your fears are justified. However, separate research conducted by psychologists in the UK and the US has found that the anxiety generated by thinking about maths competed with working memory resources. As a result, maths anxiety affected not only doing sums, but also literacy related tasks, like reading and comprehension. Fear of maths becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. According to recent studies from the renowned US-based Mayo clinic, only around 6%-14% of students have a true maths learning disorder. What excuse do the rest of us have? Far more students have reading disorders, but is it cool to be unable to read?

Most of us console ourselves with blaming a teacher who didn’t know or like the subject, or who was unable to teach it. Maybe you came from overseas and had been taught a different way. Maybe the regular tests made it all too competitive. Maybe you just didn’t get it! Perhaps you found those in the know, to be too arrogant to take the time to explain the context and background.

It is sums that people are afraid of, say British psychologists at their annual conference this year, but they believe the focus should be on problem-solving where maths becomes a game. In support, a New Zealand study found students from Asian backgrounds saw maths as intrinsically interesting and worth pursuing due to the challenge and sense of achievement of solving problems. In the same study, non-Asian students moved the responsibility to their teachers to make maths fun and relevant.

So does it matter if we can’t do maths? Well we all need the basics to catch the train, do the weekly shopping, balance our budgets and work out whether our stocks are up or down. People in many professions and businesses need more than basic maths. Dr Bob Anderssen, from CSIRO’s Maths Division in Canberra, says that maths pervades all of society and is part of our decision-making, ranging from determining grain hardness for making flour, to tuning pianos. But the important issue isn’t whether trigonometry, algebra or quadratic equations are useful, we could have that same debate for the plays of Shakespeare and the fall of the Roman Empire. The question is why do we love to hate maths? And should we allow negative attitudes to be reinforced and unchallenged? Is it time for affirmative action for maths? I say yes.

Maths has become a divider in our society. In the past it was gender and class-based segregation. However, recent international reports show that students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds still have a distinct advantage in maths. A key success factor in Australia is families that encourage a more positive attitude to both maths, and the study required to succeed.

Maths is hard. Did I forget to say that? But what happened to the idea that challenges are character-building? With increasing affluence in the Western world such thoughts sound trite. We want to be managers that tell others, including mathematicians, to solve the problems. But in a culture that equates maths with geeks, we might have to go back to flipping a coin, or start outsourcing our decision-making to places like China where mathematics is held in high regard.

How can we change attitudes? What about a public campaign like 'Maths – Be in It! Exercise your brain!' What about the suggestion by Prof Garth Gaudry in a recent report on teacher education to the House of Representatives that recommended all primary school teachers, as a bare minimum, have a good pass in general maths at year 12 level and that at university they learn not only how to teach, but also what to teach and why. Do they need that much maths? Well Gaudry says it will give them better and deeper underlying knowledge for the basics they need to teach. I think the key benefit is that it raises the bar on who will be able to lay the learning foundations for future generations, and ensures that those who do are maths-friendly. If primary school teachers try to avoid maths or think its further study a waste of time, then how will their pupils believe otherwise? Perhaps universities should not bow to pressure to dumb down their courses and reduce their maths requirements.

Hating maths is not clever. We hurt ourselves, our children, our country. Let’s stop maths bashing. Coaching schools, community colleges and TAFEs have seen many overcome their fear. Like the happy customers of weightloss programs, the overcomers have gained confidence and are getting on with life instead of hiding behind a size 20 kaftan, with 'I failed maths' printed on it.

Guests on this program:

Debbie Richards
Radio National Science Media Fellow 2005
Associate Professor and
Director,Industry and External Relations
Department of Computing
Macquarie University

Presenter: Robyn Williams
Producer: Polly Rickard and David Fisher



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