Why We Are So Bad at Maths

Maths is still considered to be one of the most challenging subjects (and yet most important), taught in schools today.

What makes maths so difficult to grasp?

Part of the problem is hereditary and I don’t mean in the genetic sense. Many young people have inherited their parents phobias and anxieties around maths, as a result of hearing them talk of their struggles in the subject, or because they have heard their parents say how their maths skills became irrelevant later on in life.

However one of the biggest missed tricks in the education of maths is something I refer to as the big fat WHY.

When we embark on any learning journey, the majority of people need to know why the content is relevant to them, before they can engage in learning about it.

The trouble with maths is we assume that the “Why you should learn this” speaks for itself. Maths crops up in our everyday lives. But unless we proposition everyday maths skills in a way that appeals to the learners current circumstances or desires, we will always assume that they should simply engage, instead of enticing them into the subject with an irresistible proposition.

Consider the differences of the two polar opposite statements below:

“We are going to learn about percentages. Go to page 124 of your workbooks. There will be a test in 2 weeks, so pay attention.”

In comparison to:

“Would you like to know which credit cards give you the best rate? Which bank accounts are going to give you the most money? Which car would cost you the most of your hard earned cash on a repayment scheme if you were chasing between a Lamborghini and a Ferrari? How much of a chocolate fudge cheesecake you can eat before you hit your daily intake of calories? Then let’s learn about percentages!”

Clearly the second statement takes up more time and energy, but it also gives the all important big fat WHY!

When we know why we should do or learn something, our desire to engage increases. If someone had made it clear to me why I should know about Pythagoras’s theorem when I learned it, it might have stuck a bit better in my mind. Instead I found myself trying to scramble together the 3.142 details ahead of an important bike ride from London to Brighton and discovered to my disappointment that the race was longer than I had anticipated. After 56 miles I expected the finish line would soon be ahead. The truth was, I had set up my cyclometer incorrectly. I was actually only about 48 miles into the race. Worst still, was that I’d cheated myself on all of my warm up rides, believing I’d got used to cycling half the distance on a regular basis when in fact, I hadn’t at all.

I don’t doubt that if the lovely Mrs Murphey (my GCSE maths teacher) had said “We are going to learn Pythagoras’s theorem because you might one day cycle from London to Brighton”, it would have been as big a turn off as what she had actually propositioned back then. So the solution would have been to make maths relevant to my 15 year old mind.

Which tells us something really important – maths isn’t about numbers. It’s about making sense of facts, people, and their real everyday lives.

It’s about saying “How can we find the quickest and easiest route to successful results, solve problems and move forward in a more dynamic way as humans by way of these clever numerical solutions?”, rather than just looking at the numerical solutions independently of real life.

Let’s face it, in real adult life, there’s much more in the number work that is human than we’d probably like. My accountant doesn’t just do my accounts, she listens to me babble on about not having a receipt for the underground because I lost it, but that TFL are vat registered so she should claim back the full 20%. We need ordinary every day scenarios for young people to grasp why maths is relevant to them. That might (sadly) be “How much is the vat on a packet of B&H?”

My concern is, many talented mathematicians are missing their calling because they never hear the right hook into a subject that they might not just excel at, but also truly enjoy.

So tell me, are you a secret maths wizard who missed the lesson where they gave out the potions book? Did you figure it out on your own, later in life? Or did you fall into the stereotypical trap of not excelling because you are female? (Yep, it’s a fact – you’ll be worse at maths if you are a girl and there’s no biological evidence to support the reasoning!).

By Gemma Bailey


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