There seems to be a peculiarly British acceptance that some people are no good at maths. The comment is made happily by self-professed 'mathsphobics' in a way that an admission that 'I struggle to read' would rarely be.
In China, Japan and Singapore where all children are expected to master maths – and they do – our apparent relaxed attitude to maths ability is dumbfounding.
The UK’s lack of maths ability as a nation is laid bare in the international Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings, where the UK featured in 27th place in 2015. Some 22 per cent of 15-year-olds failed to reach Level 2, which means they cannot solve problems routinely faced by adults in their daily lives.
In schools, particularly at primary level, there is now new focus on the subject and an attempt to learn from countries that do it better.
The buzz phrase is 'maths mastery', an approach to maths that encourages a deeper conceptual understanding. The government is training teachers in a programme of new techniques aimed at putting this approach in to practice. But, the onus lies not with the school alone.
Parents too have a role to play in helping their children become skilful, independent mathematicians.
Judith, a chartered mathematician and one of Fleet Tutors' experts at tutoring GCSE and A level maths, believes that many parents who struggled with maths really want their children to do better than they did and understand the importance of getting a good GCSE grade.
Confidence and a readiness to try things out without fear of failure – currently characterised as a growth mindset – are vital. This allows children to almost get beyond numbers.
For Judith, maths is something else above just dealing with numbers. This doesn’t mean that numbers are not important. In fact, the ability to manipulate them easily and quickly is what frees children up to start thinking about more substantive maths;
'Some people tend to think that maths is all about numbers and I think that is wrong. It is about spotting patterns and not necessarily being brilliant at arithmetic. Even now, if I’m adding up marks on an exam sheet for instance, I can feel that I really have to concentrate and push my mind to add up this list'.
According to Marcus du Sautoy, Simonyi professor for the public understanding of science and professor of maths at Oxford University, doing mathematics is a bit like playing sport or learning a musical instrument. You can’t do it well immediately – it requires practice.
Judith agrees. At GCSE level, the way to success is doing lots and lots of practice, such as past papers, to get students used to the way problems are brought up in questions and the sometimes random nature of how things are put together.
A technique that has been successful with one child that Judith is tutoring is seeing numbers in terms of money;
'We are talking about how subtraction is like being in debt, for instance. If you take away a debt, you are actually giving somebody something. That helps her to think about the direction in which numbers go'.
Granted, such methods might not work for everybody but a one-to-one tutoring scenario allows the time and space to explore what might be useful.
'The benefit of tutoring is that sometimes we can find that chink that lets the information in,’ argues Judith. It might be explaining something that they’ve heard in class but putting it in a slightly different way, and that can make all the difference'.
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