Does Maths make you quake in your shoes?

Dec 06


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Helen Whitten

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Does Maths make you quake in your shoes?

I can still remember some sixty years ago the terror of being asked by my Maths teacher to come up to the blackboard and do a sum in front of the class. Have you experienced a similar moment, when one’s brain completely freezes and all sensible though goes out of the window?

Well, it happens frequently. Some 1 in 5 adults report having difficulty with maths, and even maths teachers report feeling fearful in front of their class.

Shirley Conran OBE, feels very strongly about this matter and founded the Maths Anxiety Trust to tackle this fear of maths. So on Wednesday 30 November 2022, the Maths Anxiety Trust held a Summit to explore Maths Anxiety in Teachers – “Are we giving our teachers adequate training in the teaching of maths?”. The audience was mainly teachers and the consensus seemed to be NO.

It was a deeply thought-provoking evening organised by Maths Anxiety Trust CEO Caroline Shott. The excellent line-up of speakers on the topic, included Professor Dame Alison Peacock, CEO Chartered College of Teaching; Sam Sims, CEO National Numeracy; Dr Colin Foster, President of the Mathematical Association; Dr Sue Gifford, Emeritus Fellow, School of Education, University of Roehampton. The chair was the ever-impressive Professor Margaret Brown, OBE, President of the Maths Anxiety Trust.

Dr Colin Foster shared his own deep fear of water. He wondered how we, as adults, can ensure we don’t pass on our serious fears to our children or pupils. Whenever he walked beside the canal with his small daughter, he tried to distract himself from fear by pointing out a duck, or the beauty of the water, and yet his daughter would ask, “What’s the matter Daddy? You look sad.” So, silence and distraction do not, ultimately, fool any child, who usually picks up one’s fear intuitively.

Colin’s question to the audience was whether it is sensible to try to hide one’s fear, when one’s silence obviously leaves a child with a negative message about fear – yet the child does not understand what the adult’s problem really is. Many of us agreed that it could be more powerful to share our concerns rather than try to hide them or bottle them up. In sharing them as adult and child, try to work out strategies – to overcome the fear.

This collaboration can certainly work in the classroom to banish the sense that anyone in the room – pupil or teacher – should experience any kind of shame or humiliation. When I recall my moment in front of the blackboard, way back in 1964, I realise now that our teacher could not understand why I couldn’t understand. So, there was no collaboration to help me work out my problem: the teacher was disappointed and I increased my fear of maths.

At this Westminster Summit, that childhood episode was translated as perhaps my teacher wanted to show off how much he knew and, consequently, he made me feel small. That approach would not help many pupils, however skilled they were at Maths.

It was agreed among the teachers present at the Summit that communication skills are essential to a teacher – and particularly a maths teacher. Former journalist Shirley Conran pointed out that a teacher can use the communication skills a journalist is taught to use. If the first question or approach you make to someone doesn’t make a comfortable connection, you must try another type of question, and then another, or a metaphor.

Given time, a practical visual tool, such as a spiral made from paper, can help find the entrance to that person’s mind. Journalists are taught that it is essential to think from the other side of the desk to find the key that opens up a connection between one person and another: instead of alarming a person about the subject of discussion – imagine yourself in the other person’s mind.

It is also important to help pupils see the value and purpose of maths, so put the exercises into a real-life context. Research surprisingly shows that helping young children between the ages of 3-5 to discover the enjoyment of maths can be a predictor of their future success in life. So, teachers and parents benefit from finding ways to make maths fun for small children. This starts them on the right track of looking forward to maths classes, rather than dreading them. Some teachers don’t help – I have heard phrases from teachers such as, “Bad luck, it’s double maths for you this afternoon”, which hardly help to spread joy!

Historically, the fear of maths – which can be cultural – has been more prevalent in girls than boys and girls get unconscious messages about boys being better at maths – which is not necessarily true but can become a self-fulfilling prophesy.  Own your Worth a report by UBS published in 2019, shows that women tend to defer to men and often leave long-term financial planning to their male partner – to their own detriment.

If working girls and women with male partners don’t focus carefully on their own financial numbers in terms of salary income, pension, and investments, they can find themselves financially substantially worse off in mid or later life. Certainly, in my own time as a business coach, I encountered several successful women managers who were far more hesitant to ask for a raise than their male colleagues. Similarly, many put off thinking about investing in pensions and often elected for less risky investments. Greater confidence in thinking about numbers and maths would – without a doubt – make a difference to the long-term financial security of such girls and women.

Teaching maths teachers to enhance their confidence and approach would help those teachers to present maths in an interesting way: this could make a huge difference to future generations of children and adults. This means that teachers would learn the communication skills which help find the way into each individual child’s mind.

My own childhood experience at the blackboard – when stress sent me into a frozen paralysis of thinking – could certainly help teachers understand what a little stress can do to the brain; then they might present questions in a less frightening way.

Dr Brené Brown once said “Shame loves a perfectionist. It keeps us quiet.” But we don’t want children to be quiet. As Dr Colin Foster discovered when he walked beside the canal with his daughter, silence does not necessarily disguise our fears nor prevent a child from intuitively picking them up. So finding ways of working together to problem solve, as teacher and pupil, could surely lead to a better future learning of maths. For that, a teacher needs to learn good communication skills.

For more information do look at the Maths Anxiety Trust website

Also I have written a short booklet for parents who have children who experience anxiety around maths. The link is

For further reading: FUTURE DIRECTIONS: Practical Ways to Develop Emotional Intelligence and Confidence in Young People by Helen Whitten, Published 2006 by Network Continuum.


One Response

  1. Great post, Helen. Beautifully articulated. What you are describing about lack of communication between teacher and pupils and in particular with reference to maths is so true. It is as if because maths concerns numbers and not letters, there is no need to explain in WORDS, as if there is a consensus that you either have to understand through numbers, or not at all. When you add your coaching knowledge, about how we learn and how different people learn differently, to the mix, I think thank heavens for the Maths Anxiety Trust that you talk about! Being a maths-phobe almost all my life, I’ve sometimes looked for a maths course that would make maths understandable and fun, but they hardly appear to exist. More’s the pity, but thank you for posting on this subject.

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