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“I’m rubbish at it!” is a frequently given response when I ask my adult learners how they feel about maths.
Many of them report a lack of enjoyment in their lessons, and far too easily utter the phrase “I’m no good at maths” in a way that would never be socially acceptable to say with regards to reading and writing.
These early experiences and attitudes towards maths have followed them into adulthood and, even though they have returned to education in order to pursue a career in the classroom, they often display apprehension – at best – towards maths-related activities.
Could it be that these learners simply don’t like maths, and never have, or is there something more to it?
The term ‘maths anxiety’ has been around for about 50 years now, and yet there is still surprisingly little understanding and training given to it in schools.
The Maths Anxiety Trust defines it as a “negative emotional reaction to mathematics, leading to varying degrees of helplessness, panic and mental disorganisation that arises [...] when faced with a mathematical problem.”
Recent surveys have indicated that 23% of parents have a child who is experiencing maths anxiety and 20% of adults in Britain also experience anxiety when faced with a maths problem (Maths Anxiety Trust).
Research has repeatedly shown that maths anxiety can have a long-standing negative impact on stress levels, self-esteem, management of finances and social mobility.
Maths anxiety elicits a fight or flight physiological response, although sufferers themselves may not actually be aware they are experiencing it. While we can’t observe the thoughts of our pupils, we can observe their behaviours.
Potential characteristics of maths anxiety include avoidant, defiant or ‘lazy’ behaviours, and underachievement or poor achievement, among others.
Over the years, I can think of several pupils who have displayed the characteristics of maths anxiety in my maths lessons. So why, after nine years of teaching in primary schools (five of which were spent as a maths subject leader) was the first time I heard of this phenomenon when I returned to university to study for a masters in developmental psychology?
It’s not like these pupils weren’t supported – they participated in intervention groups, I discussed their progress with them and their parents, and tried to ensure my pedagogy was appropriate for both enjoyment and achievement. It’s not like all of these pupils will have even been experiencing anxiety.
However, I feel sure that if I had participated in some training on maths anxiety there are pupils I would have identified as having this and therefore supported far more efficiently.
Risk factors for pupils experiencing maths anxiety include adults passing on their own anxiety, not experiencing success, and negative experiences (such as public embarrassment or receiving a poor mark).
Time pressures on tasks, and poor quality or inconsistent teaching (such as different methods being used between staff members or between home and school) are other potential causes of maths anxiety, as are negative thinking patterns and attitudes towards maths, and fears around embarrassment, failure or being judged.
Maths anxiety does not discriminate between ages, genders, maths ability or complexity of maths work. It’s definitely not something that just affects lower ability pupils.
In fact, there appears to be a higher incidence of maths anxiety among average and higher ability pupils – something that is possibly attributable to the risk factors of embarrassment or fear of failure.
The good news is that there are some simple changes we can all try and make, at both a whole-school and classroom level, which will undoubtedly have a positive impact. More importantly, they are all examples of good practice anyway, regardless of the pupil or subject.
Bringing awareness of these factors at a whole-school level is the obvious first step. Reflecting on policies and individual pedagogy is the second.
One change I made to my own practice was to use more ‘low threshold, high ceiling’ activities to consolidate learning or explore new concepts (nrich.org has some good activities and articles relating to this).
Tasks that are perceived as a ‘low threat’ by pupils, due to their simple, accessible nature, allow all children to engage, while the ‘high ceiling’ allows pupils to explore the topic as far as they are able to. Pace can be set by the pupil themselves and progressing through the activity is self-motivating.
Everybody working on the same activity reduces that ‘comparison’ and ‘ranking’ ethos that can take place among children.
Another good tool is introducing the ‘feelings’ aspect of learning – teaching and encouraging pupils to talk about how they feel at different points in their learning and why. This is something that can be achieved with pupils of all ages through resources such as reflective prompts.
Whatever the adjustments made, we need to start looking at the psychology behind maths anxiety and not just focus on maths ‘skills’.
As teachers, we have so many plates spinning at once that it’s easy to see why tackling the underlying issues of maths anxiety might keep getting lost.
We can now also add to this the current pressures around making up for ‘lost learning’ due to the pandemic, and the need to support pupil mental health and wellbeing in a more rounded sense.
It would be very easy to focus on the measurable outcomes of ‘progress and attainment’ but the problem here is that we have a cycle of maths anxiety that needs breaking; adults who have maths anxiety can pass this on to the children around them.
Pupils who go through schools with maths anxiety, either short-term or long-term, become the adults who go back into the classroom to support the next generation, and also have children themselves.
When we put this into the context of the far-reaching effects of maths anxiety, such as poor social mobility, economic outcomes and low self-esteem, the issue becomes greater than the teaching of maths skills.
We can keep kicking the ‘maths anxiety can’ down the road, but the cycle isn’t going to break itself.
Marie Thompson is a qualified teacher and now works in the post-19 education sector. Watch Marie’s maths anxiety webinar via video CPD website The National College here.
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