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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 May 2007, 09:05 GMT 10:05 UK
Maths: who said it was difficult?
By Hannah Goff
BBC News education reporter

maths joke seen on Fark.com
Mathematicians have a sense of humour too
Maths teaching is in need of a makeover. Experts agree.

But if the response to a Royal Society of Chemistry maths challenge is anything to go by - 1,800 entries, massive web traffic, internet blogs discussing it - maths isn't as much of a turn-off as some people assume.

The RSC's Brian Emsley said: "We would have put extra staff on had we realised.

"It became a bit like the Harry Potter owls delivering letters. Entries and e-mails were coming in through every crack and crevice of the building."

What's needed is for someone to write an Eats, Shoots and Leaves for maths
David Brockley

So if a Chinese maths challenge can elicit that sort of response, why are so many people so down on the subject?

The winner of the RSC challenge, software engineer David Brockley, said: "Maths does suffer from an image problem.

"It's seen as a nerdy subject - but then I am a stereotypical geek.

"What's needed is for someone to write an Eats, Shoots and Leaves for maths."

Attempts have been made to do this - for example, the Jeremy Wyndham and Rob Eastaway books Why do Buses Come in Threes? and How Long Is a Piece of String?

But they do not seem to have captured the popular imagination in the same way as Lynne Truss's book about punctuation.

Mr Brockley added: "Maths is all around, you can use it to calculate all sorts of interesting things but a lot of people don't attempt to because they think they will fail."

'Practice makes perfect'

Edinburgh University chemistry lecturer Dr Perdita Barran says not only is it seen as "uncool" to do maths but pupils are also made to think it is too hard.

The senior research fellow, who used to teach remedial maths to science undergraduates at Sussex University, argues that teachers themselves are setting pupils up to fail very early on.

"In primary school, children feel they can do almost anything up until about the age of 12.

"But when they reach the end of Key Stage 2 a sense of failure comes along.

"They are being told things like, 'We are going to do long division - it's going to be difficult - but if you practise you should be able to do it'.

"So they are already being warned off maths as a difficult subject."

She argues that maths is actually no harder than any other subject - it is just perceived to be so.

And there the conundrum begins.

Head teacher of King John School in Benfleet, Essex, and maths expert, Margaret Wilson, responded by setting her pupils up to succeed and to do so earlier.

Money matters

"We decided we were going to tackle the image of maths by entering all our pupils early for GCSE.

"This has made a huge change in perceptions, because instead of it just being the top set, we did it for everyone so they started to think; 'We must be good at this'.

"Also it meant we could really focus on it."

Now the school has 74% of pupils achieving grade A* to C and many more go on to do maths A-level.

But Miss Wilson, who is a member of the maths panel at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, also reveals that the school goes back over the basics which pupils are expected to have learnt for their Key Stage 2 tests.

"Schools do a lot of teaching to the test which means some of the foundations you need to move on like multiplication, long division and the times tables aren't there," she says.

Chairwoman of the Association of Teachers of Mathematics Sue Johnstone-Wilder said maths became more difficult when a person was anxious or upset.

She said: "Possibly because the anxiety affects the functioning of the frontal lobe where memory is used for calculating.

"This has serious implications for policy - expecting that children will attain a certain level at a certain age, and stressing those who have not, is damaging their mathematical health and potential attainment."

Confidence

But there is also a real shortage of maths graduates wanting to become teachers, partly because they can earn much more as accountants probably.

Institute of Mathematics education adviser Professor Nigel Steele says teachers can have a problem with confidence in the subject.

"When you have got changes in the curriculum, teachers who are less than 100% sure of what they are doing, and I sympathise, they get rather concerned and they can go into their shells and maths comes out as a boring subject in school."

For our RSC puzzle winner, software engineer David Brockley, the key to the conundrum is making maths relevant.

This, along with subject support, is something Professor Steele sees as vital.

"Perhaps we could get people who use maths in their daily lives to go into schools and let pupils know how important it is and how they can make a lot of money doing it."

But until the panel of BBC Two's Dragon's Den can be persuaded to take time out from making money to go back to the classroom, we'll have to rely on teachers to bring the subject alive.


SEE ALSO
Mathematicians set Chinese test
25 Apr 07 |  Education
Chinese maths puzzle solutions
01 May 07 |  Education
Pupils 'are urged to drop maths'
25 Apr 07 |  Education
Advisers sound maths GCSE warning
23 Feb 07 |  Education
Dual maths GCSEs trouble experts
02 Feb 07 |  Education

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