Wednesday 11 April 2012

"I'm rubbish at maths!"

Why is it socially acceptable to admit you're bad at maths?

In fact, it's not just socially acceptable, it's encouraged. You would feel more uncomfortable announcing that you're quite good at maths than saying you're bad at it. I'm right, aren't I?

We had an NQT/PGCE meeting the other day about numeracy. As soon as it started, there was a chorus of "Oh, I'm rubbish at maths"s from the non-maths or science teachers. One English specialist said, "actually, I like maths, I'm quite good at it", then hastily added, "I know, I'm weird!". Why do we feel the need for such an addendum?

The week before, we had a meeting about literacy. Now it will not surprise you at all to learn that the meeting did not start with a load of teachers saying "Oh, I'm rubbish at reading". I have never once heard an adult admit this. Admitting you are illiterate is very tabboo. So why are people falling over themselves to declare that they are innumerate?

It really annoys me when I meet parents of my pupils and they say to me, "I'm terrible at maths, I hated it at school". Children naturally copy their parents, so they pick up on things like this, and they think it's OK to say things like this. And as soon as a child gets it into their head that they're bad at maths, they become worse at maths. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I hate it when people claim to be bad at maths. In my opinion there should be just as much stigma on being innumerate as there is on being illiterate. Maths is as much a life skill as reading and writing. Everybody in the UK should be able to do basic maths, just like everybody should be able to read and write. And if you can't, FOR SHAME.

Maybe I'm being a bit harsh. My worst subject is probably Geography. I'm sure I've said on more than one occasion, "I'm rubbish at geography". I think I've already mentioned on this blog the time my geography teacher wrote, "Is this some kind of joke?" next to an essay I'd written. I tell that story proudly. So I'm a complete hypocrite really. My head of department asked me the other day if I knew where Hull was. I admitted, unabashed, that I had no idea. I retell at any opportunity the time some pupils asked me if I knew where Bosnia was, and, looking my Bosnian student straight in the face, I said, "Of course, it's in Africa". Did I mention this student is blonde? I'm not ashamed of this. It was funny. So, yeah. Huge hypocrite.

OK, ignore everything I've said. Maybe it's obvious but I'll tell you anyway: I wrote this blog post on two separate days. The paragraph starting "Maybe I'm being a bit harsh" I wrote today, four days after the beginning paragraphs. I'm obviously in a better mood now (at the time of writing it's Good Friday, and hence the first day of my Easter break). I'll probably still publish this, in a few days, but I'm a bit disappointed that my argument fell flat on its face.

I hope you're enjoying your Easter holiday!

Emma x x x


  1. Dear Emma

    The other day, I was once more stumped by a text that called for some maths. Out of curiosity I started looking in Google to see if many people seemed to be as hopeless at the subject as I am. And I found your post. I find some of your statements unfair.

    I am not only bad at maths, but can't "do them". Some basic stuff, but I can't do divisions for instance, and as for algebra I never understood any of it.

    I could never understand at school, although my parents (I remember this with gratitude) paid for expensive private lessons. I never knew what a sinus was, or a logarythm, nor did I ever understand, for instand, what in French (my native language) is called a first degree equation with one unknown. I went through miserable years as a schoolboy trying to understand, and feeling so powerless. Other pupils in the same class as me didn't seem to have the same difficulty.

    Since then, I have more than once wished that I was better at maths, and I have tried to do something about it. Over the years I have bought several books of the "maths are fun", "maths are easy" sort, both in English and in French. In all cases, after a few pages I was lost. There were formulae, concepts and even words that I just couldn't understand. And these were books supposed to make things understandable and simple !

    My inability to understand the subject is something that sometimes makes me feel rotten. Because so much in life depends on an understanding of maths. I am a keen crossword puzzle solver, and enjoy various other word games and puzzles. And I know that maths, and mathematical games, can be fascinating from a philosophical or poetic point of view. The way the Fibonacci series can be found in nature (seashells) springs to mind. Not understanding is sometimes very frustrating.

    This is why I'm angry when I hear people say "everyone can do maths" adding that all people need to do is work hard at it. Their message is simple: I can do it, so anyone can. Well, no. Maths are incomprehensible to me and to many others. Mathematical skills take a certain kind of mind, which we don't seem to have. It doesn't make us stupid or lazy. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. And "socially acceptable" has nothing to do with it.

    So please have a little understanding.

    Best wishes

    Xavier Kreiss

    1. Xavier,

      I know that there are some people who genuinely can't get their heads around maths. It sounds to me like you have a condition called dyscalculia, a genuine learning difficulty (some people liken it to dyslexia). It was not my intention to offend people like you.

      What I was trying to get at was there are many people out there who say they are bad at maths when they're not. Maybe this phenomenon is exclusive to the UK?

      I never meant to offend people who actually do struggle with maths!

      Please do read up on dyscalculia, maybe you will find something that can help you. I would suggest if you want to teach yourself properly, avoid anything that claims to make maths easy, as they will be "tricks" that lead to no understanding. Start by looking at number lines. For division, consider the "chunking" method (very popular in the UK) instead of the traditional way. Forget sines and logarithms for now, in the UK only the very top maths students learn about these things.

      Good luck,


  2. Dear Emma,

    I only came across your considerate answer the other day, hence this late message.

    Dyscalculia ? I don't know. Oddly, I remember I didn't have too many problems with arithmetic. It was algebra I found impossible.

    The chunking method for division ? I've just had a look at what you mean, and I dare say I could do it. But a calculator is faster. As for number lines, what are they ? I looked on the web and they seem to be mostly about arithmetic.

    Numbers themselves don't frighten me. It's algebra. If you cant "do" algebra, you're bad at maths. And that gives rise to comments and statements that are insensitive.

    I saw a comment the other day by a man who heads an organisation promoting numeracy. He said "We want to make it unacceptable to say “I can’t do maths” – and we want to make affective training available to everyone who needs it ".

    The offer of training is positive. But apart from that, he seems to assume that since he has no difficulties with maths, if he can "do it ", then so can everyone else. This is arrogant, and suggests that I and others just aren't trying. A growing body of evidence indicates that some people may simply be "wired" differently . As for making it "unacceptable" to say "I'm bad at maths" ... Really ?
    Unacceptable the way racist statements are, for instance? Or spitting on pavements ?

    The problem is that he is only one of many.

    I can spell. I'm quite good at it, and I enjoy words games and puzzles ( cryptic crosswords etc ). I'm also ( I'm told ) good at languages. But I would never say that others who aren't good at it are in any way inferior. This is fortunate for the man I quote higher up, whose statement contains a mistake - unless the training he wants to make available is in the field of moods and state of mind. That, after all, is what 'affective' means.

    Thank you again for your email and suggestions.

    1. By the sound of it, you're not bad at maths at all, it's just that you are so strong in other areas and maths is your weak point! Also it sounds as if you've been taught badly if you've never heard of numberlines. I bet with a good teacher you'd understand algebra easily. It's the same with me and geography - if I'd had good teachers in this subject I'd be a lot better.

  3. Please forgive this additional point : you say "forget sines and logarithms " ( I got the spelling wrong last time I wrote the word - I must have been thinking of "rhythm", but that's no excuse ).

    "only the very top maths students learn about these things" ? In France we were expected to learn and know about them when I was about 16 or 17. I was stumped.

    And even before that, equations, finding ( I'm translating literally here) the smallest common multiple or the biggest common divider etc were procedures which were quite beyond me.

    Fortunately, at the time I managed to scrape through thanks to languages, and history/geography.

    Bien à vous


  4. Dear Emma

    You might remember me from comments about two years ago.
    I was reminded of our exchange by a Facebook “conversation” with a friend who says she is also rotten at maths yet good at languages.
    Once more, I debated with her the possibility that some of us may be “wired” differently from others.
    I’m convinced of this.
    I thought of your blog, had a look, and was happy to see that it’s still going strong.
    Since my last comments I have watched more maths-related documentaries (the “you can do maths too” kind), and even taken a test (on line). As always, everything went well as long as it was simple arithmetic. But further than that, I was lost.
    And the current front page of your blog is, to me, incomprehensible. This is frustrating since some of the subject matter seems rather fun. Typical is the piece entitled “what is x”. In a way, it looks like a game. But I hit a blank wall after a few lines. It reminds me of so many exercises that I was asked to do as a kid, and never could. For that, I got bad marks at school and it made my parents very worried. You don’t forget that kind of thing.
    And now I’m an adult, with (perhaps) a more mature mind, but I still can’t make head or tail of it.
    The reason why I’m writing again is that, on the whole, two years ago you were sympathetic and considerate. And I want to plead once more for us who can’t do maths. In the last two years, I’ve heard more people assume that everyone has to have a certain level. Pr Brian Cox, for instance, assumes this. He has said more than once -in so many words- that “everyone can do maths”. This is not only insensitive and unfair, but it’s a silly statement for a scientist. I’d love to ask him what his evidence is for making such a statement.
    Anyhow… you will have guessed that I’m frustrated because I still feel that I’m a member of a minority that regularly comes in for some very unfair “stick”.
    As a teacher, I hope that you bear in mind that some of your students may be as “stuck” as I am. I think you’re probably aware of this, and fair with them. They might have other, different strengths. Mine are languages.
    Before I finish, I would add that I, too, collect rubber ducks. Does this sort of thing say anything about us? And if so, do we want to know?

    Bien à vous,

    Xavier Kreiss

    1. Bonjour again,

      I thought about you recently, actually, when reading about Carol Dweck's research into fixed versus growth mindests. Some people believe that our ability to understand maths is fixed - like how you say we might be born with or without mathematical capability, Dweck's research says that thinking in this way leads to poor performance in the areas you think you are bad at. So perhaps early negative experiences in maths led you to believe you were naturally bad at maths, and perhaps having a fixed mindset caused this to propagate? Take a look at Dweck's research anyway, it is fascinating.

      As a teacher I am definitely aware that everyone's mathematical ability is different. I teach a group of sixteen year olds who still cannot recall basic addition facts (e.g. 15 + 10 = 25) or understand that 1.4 is bigger than 1.25.

      As someone who studied in France, your school experience was probably very different from how it would be in the UK. Here, only a small percentage of students are ever taught logarithms, these would be the very best students. Only around 40% would ever learn trigonometry (sine, cosine). And learning maths is not compulsory after the age of 16. When British people talk about people who are bad at maths, what we mean is people who cannot do basic arithmetic, cannot understand basic fractions, decimals and percentages, and who cannot spot patterns in numbers. This would probably not include you!

      I know I have said this before but I really do believe you could understand abstract mathematical concepts if you were taught in the right way. I myself see maths as similar to languages (I teach French as well as maths). Perhaps if you had a teacher who could teach you maths in a similar way to languages you would understand?

      Merci pour reponder, et merci pour lire.

  5. I'm rubbish at maths! But this is so due to my laziness. I`m going to visit math club to improve my knowledge of it.

  6. At school I had problems with maths.I want to say thank you for the opportunity to improve my knowledges. Thanks a lot!