Love English, hate maths? Numbers should be cool not scary

It’s time for a cultural shift in how we view maths in school and beyond, writes English teacher Alex Quigley. This is from the Guardian…

I love a leading and provocative title, but I will assuage all those maths teachers nice and early that this is not an attack. Indeed, it is quite the opposite. It is a robust defence of maths and the teaching and learning of mathematics. You heard it right. I’m an English teacher writing in defense of maths.

Now, as a subject leader of English, I am acutely conscious of the pressures faced by core subject teachers, in both English and maths. In many ways, I recognise that it is not really a fair playing field. One key critical factor, which as a teacher of children (and not just English) irks me greatly, is that society supports and celebrates the majesty of reading and writing, but it openly scorns mathematical study. The weight of culture actually militates against the learning of mathematics.

The impact of cultural conditioning cannot be underestimated and the stigmatising power of language cuts deep and endures. I was brought up in a literate working class family, rich in reading and good-humoured talk. Education was seen as a privilege and I was warmly supported in a loving climate. I am wholeheartedly thankful for brilliant and loving parents. One small failure on their part is that they “couldn’t do maths”. This familiar refrain passed readily on to me and round about 12 years of age, after I was taught by a brilliant maths teacher, Mr Laing, who openly debated his early struggles with maths and his subsequent Damoclean conversion, I pretty much stopped trying to study hard at maths. Does this sound familiar?

There is a widespread societal acceptance that mathematics cannot be learnt easily, if at all. Not like those ‘natural’ subjects like English, or art, or PE. Of course, all of this is nonsense. As is the stereotype that those ‘blessed’ with mathematical skill are geniuses. From birth, children are indoctrinated with this closed system of thought, which of course becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Anyone who has read Carole Dweck’s Mindset will be fully versed in the destructive power of such culturally vindicated language.

As humans we are naturally averse to thinking, we seek this state so we can focus on the important stuff, like our primal needs for survival. This neatly explains why I prefer to snack on sweets and not tackle complex mathematical problems of an evening. So children, intelligent and wily creatures that they are, will do their damnedest to avoid the difficult thinking and challenges involved in attending maths lessons. Students therefore avoid what WB Yeats termed “the fascination of what’s difficult”. This principal applies to maths and children are only vindicated in their avoidance of tackling the subject by negative cultural language and stereotypes. See this great collection of clips from films for irrefutable evidence of cultural bias against mathematical study…

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