MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Thu 13-Mar-14 11:26:21

Guest post: "I can't do maths" - if you're saying it, your kids probably are too

Recent studies have shown that numeracy is a bigger indicator of disadvantage than literacy - and yet being 'bad at maths' is often made light of.

In this guest post, Wendy Jones - trustee of National Numeracy - explains the impact parents' attitude to maths has on the development of their children's skills, and argues that we must be more positive about the subject in front of our kids.

Read the post and let us know what you think on the thread. Did you hate maths at school? Have your kids picked up on it?

Lead photo
Wendy Jones

Trustee of National Numeracy.

Posted on

Thu 13-Mar-14 11:26:21

(51 comments)

Do you give your kids a positive message about maths?

I remember one particular parents’ evening at my children’s infant school. It was dedicated to maths. The displays of equipment were superb and the head teacher was desperate to persuade us that maths was something real. "Now who’s used maths today?” she asked.

We knew we were being slightly patronised. We wriggled around embarrassedly on chairs designed for very small bottoms and came up with lacklustre variations on “I've been to the supermarket” or “I've checked off invoices at work”.

One mum, whose day – or rather night – job was as a croupier, injected a touch of glamour into an otherwise flat (but well intentioned) evening, with her examples of maths usage. But this wasn't what we’d come to parents’ evening for - we wanted to know whether our kids were being taught their tables and tessellation, and we left none the wiser about how our offspring were really learning maths.

This was a long time ago – my children are now at work or university - but the school obviously did something right because two of my three (the two girls – to confound gender stereotypes) went on to do A-level maths.

But I have a feeling that, in some ways, things are little changed when it comes to parents and maths. The fact that there weren't many of us there that evening, and most of us were a bit nervous about discussing maths, was telling.

The reluctance, or worse, that many parents feel towards the subject can settle in early and get passed on too easily to our children. But it shouldn't be so.

Young, pre-school children are naturally enthusiastic about numbers and shapes and counting. It’s easy to encourage them to look out for maths in every aspect of daily life – in cooking, shopping, sorting things, going on a journey - to normalise maths. That stands them in good stead for when school maths does start to get more abstract.

We do need to be aware of this country's cultural oddity of rubbishing maths. And – I have to admit – it does seem to be more common among my female friends. All the research evidence suggests that girls and women are less confident about maths too.

But perhaps even more important is to talk about maths positively and to continue doing so as they get older. The real danger is of denigrating maths. Of saying: “It’s not that important, you can get by without it.” Yes it is, and no you can’t. Or: “I'm no good at maths.” If that is the case, do something about it rather than bragging about it.

I'm not suggesting that we start lecturing our kids about the links between numeracy and getting a job, earning a decent wage, managing money, being healthy and happy even (although it’s worth bearing these things in mind, and there is plenty more in that vein on the National Numeracy website).

But we do need to be aware of this country’s cultural oddity of rubbishing maths. And – I have to admit – it does seem to be more common among my female friends. All the research evidence suggests that girls and women are less confident about maths too.

When we started up National Numeracy two years ago, the Today programme interviewed a woman called Paula, who admitted that she “just didn't get” maths at school. In adult life, she was often unsure whether she was being short-changed in shops. But it was when she heard her children saying they were “rubbish at maths, just like mum” that she decided to do something about it. She went to numeracy classes at college, and she did start to get it.

That's the point. Maths is not a ‘can’ or ‘can't do’ subject. Everyone can learn to get better at it.

This week National Numeracy have launched the National Numeracy Challenge. It’s a big drive to improve numeracy across the UK and at its heart is an online site that lets you check your own everyday maths skills (in the privacy of your own home!), so you can see exactly where you need to brush up, find online learning resources that match those needs, then return to the check-up to see how you've improved.

As the Challenge stresses, the important thing is confidence.

So, if you’re unsure about your maths skills, have a go. If you’re already confident, try it anyway and encourage others. Mention it at work, to friends, at your child’s school. Get the school to sign up as a Challenge school.

National Numeracy’s parents and carers' page has more information on how you can help your children learn. And if you want to know more about how your children are learning maths at school, there are links to a lot of information on that too.

In Wales they've already started a What You Say Counts campaign to encourage parents to be positive about maths. As a Jones, I have to salute the Welsh for taking the lead in this. We need the same throughout the UK – a commitment not to say negative things about maths in front of your children – ever.

By Wendy Jones

Twitter: @WendyJonesSJ

MarpleMiss Thu 13-Mar-14 12:44:34

I often wonder why it is socially acceptable for an otherwise educated person (often but not always female) to announce with a giggle, and perhaps even a touch of pride, that she is "useless at maths." Nobody says that about reading. You would be too ashamed. In both cases, the person should do something about it and work hard to become BETTER at maths/reading and to ensure that their children do not fall into the same trap. But please let us not confuse arithmetic (adding up and subtracting) with maths. Maths is about understanding logic, patterns and reasoning. This is not about getting your grocery bill right. It is about life.

Enb76 Thu 13-Mar-14 12:50:56

It is only as an adult that I have realised that actually, I'm pretty good with numbers. My mother always said that she was awful at maths and so when I found bits difficult I decided I was too. I think it is bizarre that one would feel shame to have to say "oh, I'm illiterate" but it's some sort of badge of honour to be innumerate.

DrDre Thu 13-Mar-14 13:51:07

I am good at maths (University level qualification). However, I find it very difficult to teach it to my seven year old son. I find it much harder to help him with his maths work compared to reading and writing. I think a possible issue may be that parents don't know how to help their children with maths, and may end up confusing them more than helping them (as I have done recently). My son's school runs an evening for parents to help with this, which is a good step.

heirraising Thu 13-Mar-14 14:17:41

Have been helping my son recently with Times Tables so wanted to make it fun. This is the result bit.ly/1lZcV1P

heirraising Thu 13-Mar-14 14:19:38

Sorry, I'll put it in another format www.josandelson.com/heir-raising/times-tables-shortcut/

MrsBucketxx Thu 13-Mar-14 14:33:16

i find maths a real struggle i always worry about what will happen when my children go to school. dh is amazing and uses maths in his job every day. yet i feel like the dunce of the family.

its not easy when even the basics of logic and maths are a struggle.

DavidHarewoodsFloozy Thu 13-Mar-14 14:40:14

Agree with all previous posters, and I think the campaign is great, however, if as much focus was put on kids who fall behind in numeracy as those who fall behind in literacy, we,d have better outcomes.

You only have to look at the angst over reading levels on the boards here to see that numeracy is an afterthoight for a lot of parents(myself included).

I never seen on a thread,"my childs school is testing for dyscalculia".
Truth is for a lot of children/adults maths is a problem.
Earlier intervention, I think would make a difference.
It,s amazing how quickly kids start telling themselves that they can,t do something.

Spindelina Thu 13-Mar-14 14:42:16

I might be horribly misrepresenting someone here, but this is my recollection of something said by John Humphreys (who I consider to be, if nothing else, well-educated).

They were discussing a proposal to increase the entry requirements for teaching. The proposal was to bring the requirements for maths in line with English (GCSE C?). John Humphreys said something like "I can see that even a non-specialist English teacher would need to use English every day, but Maths?!".

OK, he's not exactly known for not being provocative, but I had the urge to throw the radio across the room.

MarpleMiss Thu 13-Mar-14 14:44:56

There are some fantastic tools out there to help youngsters grasp numbers eg cuisinaire rods, fraction boards, maths magic mixer game, logic puzzles. With young primary school children, these may be of more use than sitting down going through sums (although that has its place and satisfaction). I too am a university level (Cambridge) mathematician and still often think in colour coded numbers using cuisinaire colours from nursery school. Everyone can naturally do logic, and maths is just imposing a set of coherent artificial rules on the number system in a logical fashion. Learn the rules then you can do the maths and the results are magical.

MarpleMiss Thu 13-Mar-14 14:46:36

Rats, will have to nc now. I always think of that quip: "How can you tell if someone has been to Cambridge?" Answer: "because they tell you in the first 5 minutes." I try never to mention it but just failed. Gah!

mercibucket Thu 13-Mar-14 15:32:34

known as 'the five minute rule' round our way grin

noblegiraffe Thu 13-Mar-14 15:54:15

I'm a maths teacher and every parents evening get at least 2 or 3 comments from parents, in front of their kids, mentioning that they are rubbish at maths. If it's a kid that's good at maths 'they didn't get it from me' or if the child is struggling 'I was never any good at maths either, I can't help'.

I do sometimes wonder if other teachers get similar comments about being rubbish at PE or geography.

My approach is to ask the dc to help me with maths related stuff. I'm certain I have dyscalculia but of course back in the 1840s when I was at school it was unheard of. All three dc are 'gifted' at maths - how did that happen? No idea but it's great at tax return time.

mineofuselessinformation Thu 13-Mar-14 16:10:43

The fact is they wouldn't, Noble - and there are lots of maths teachers out there who would love to help patents understand their child's work. (I know you know that! Just making the point. smile)

mineofuselessinformation Thu 13-Mar-14 16:11:05

Gaah! *parents.

nessus Thu 13-Mar-14 18:19:47

I am scared of Maths which is rather sad. Would love to conquer the fear and tackle GCSE Maths but the block is so strong. Will check and see if any local numeracy initiatives near me.

LindseyLM Thu 13-Mar-14 18:23:58

My children's school has recently purchased several copies of a new board game called PLYT - and my kids love it. Getting them to talk about their day is usually like extracting teeth but they openly volunteered the information when they first played the game.

Anyway we borrowed a copy from school and I have to say it wasn't what I expected. It was great - actually playing an educational game that we didn't have to dumb down for and the children could play as well.

The reason why I'm telling you is because as parents we played and felt like we were being challenged - and after a few games we became so much sharper. And in our case, that set a great example to the children - they could see us doing more and they wanted to do more as well. Win-win.

Spottybra Thu 13-Mar-14 18:29:02

I'm in adult maths classes at the children's centre and my dc think I go because I like maths. If only they knew. MIL tried to tell them why mummy goes to maths classes but I interrupted by saying let them think that, they may want to like maths too.

In reality, maths was just made so abstract as a stand alone subject when it isn't really. If someone had bothered to take the time to explain to my teenage self that if I could work out whether I could afford a lipstick as well as a dress because it had 40% for example, I could do maths. Or that because I knew how much I had to buy food (child carer) and could add up the cost of my shop as I went along then I could do maths.

Stupidly the part of maths I enjoyed the most was algebra because it was a puzzle and not at all maths like. Now I want to step sideways into teaching I need my qualification in maths. All those years doing reports and forecasts and statistics count for nothing other than I know I can do maths now.

ancientbuchanan Thu 13-Mar-14 19:17:57

There's a brilliant book called Sum Hope by Steve Chinn, of Mark College, which is for adults to help them recognise dyscalculia. It's revolutionary. I found I am slightly dysc, can't do arithmetic, but adore the logic of non arithmetic maths. I too had cuisenaire and loved them, but wished they had come in 12s.

I was taught great things like venn diagrams and sets in infants in Australia, great system.

ancientbuchanan Thu 13-Mar-14 19:18:39

Revelatory, not revolutionary.

WhosLookingAfterCourtney Thu 13-Mar-14 19:29:41

I would never let on to my dc, but I really dislike maths as a subject.

I got an A in maths at gcse, so it's not that I can't do it, it's the rigidity of the subject, there being only one answer, that means I have very little interest in it outside of everyday uses.

There was a thread on here recently about fractions that crystalised my view.

Of course if dd or ds are interested I would encourage it, as with any subject.

BertieBotts Thu 13-Mar-14 20:12:27

Isn't it more that maths used to be taught in one rigid way, which, much like "look and say" reading methods, worked fine if you have the right kind of brain to join up the dots, but if your brain doesn't work in that particular way then you were basically screwed because they didn't tell you how to figure that part out, you were supposed to learn it from the teaching.

Now maths is taught very differently, there is far more focus on the underlying building blocks which make up numbers and I think it's easier to understand, whether you have "that kind of brain" or not.

My sister and I both like maths and are good at maths but our mother is a big "can't do maths" person. I can't remember why but one evening we ended up going through how to do a calculation in various ways and she said "Wow, if maths was taught like this when I was at school, I think I would have been able to do it. It's easy, it just makes sense!"

I like maths because it is very logical and everything slots together. I don't find it rigid that there is only one answer, it's comforting because it means you can do it backwards and check that you've got it right. You can't generally follow an argument like that in any other subject, possibly some parts of the physical sciences.

I didn't like maths at school, and when I got older I wondered if it was because my mother always went on about how terrible she'd been at it and how much she hated it.
So I have been very very careful not to do that with my dc. I've always been really positive about it. But... my dd (age 8 ) has started saying she hates maths and is rubbish at it. She's not actually - she is above national average - but she still has that negative attitude, as though she finds maths scary (which was exactly how I felt).

mirtzapine Thu 13-Mar-14 21:31:48

Math Anxiety affect a fair portion of the population here. It something that needs to be seriously addressed.

The real problem is is that it spans every aspect of a persons life. If you're math anxious then how difficult will it be for that person to budget their money, work out how far to go on what they've got in the petrol tank. Or if that "deal/sale/bargain" is good or not.

Its a pretty serious thing, think of all the people working in the Financial Services sector who are making decisions based on numbers who feel uncomfortable with basic (let alone complex) maths.

Take for example this
eleven plus two = twelve plus one it's mathematically correct, but its also an anagram. And that starts to take away elements of anxiety when you have that "Oh yeh!" moment.

Take for example, how far on what I have in my petrol tank?

I just asked DW that question, she looked panicked, litres by volume against miles as a distance. Basically two plain simple units of measure, yet she had difficulty with visualising it as 20 litres in the tank and 40 miles to the litre, then 20 x 40 = 600, kerching! Anxiety gone, calculation done.

Yesterday, my 5yo DD said "plus 3" Daddy, so I blithely started to explain infix, postfix and prefix notation and alternative names such as polish notation and reverse polish notation, cos I was on the bus and slightly bored. Today, her teacher asked me Why she's going "plus 3 its prefix".

Hopefully, I'll be able to pass on my comfort with numbers.

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