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Maths: The Biggest Lesson I Wish I’d Learned

I have a confession to make. It’s not an easy one, but as a new member of the SPC team, I feel I should be brutally honest. Maths terrifies me; it always has done. Not in an ‘oh no, giant geometry hiding behind bushes’ way, but in a clammy palm, thumping heart, churning stomach way. Ask me to do even a simple sum, and, despite the fact I know full well that two times four is eight, I’ll squeak out what sounds like it could be interpreted as the word ‘eight’ and include an inflection that suggests I’m still not sure that it’s the correct answer. Then I’ll look for an escape route in the hope that nobody will ever ask me a mathematical question ever again, until I’m standing at the self-service till in Tesco only to be greeted with the glaring omen of doom: ‘cash only’.

Woman in front of a blackboard

Sound familiar?

One of the most poetic things I’ve ever heard was about maths: that it is the best form of communication because it is the same in every language. The idea of a universal communication medium just appeals to me, and I think Maths as a subject is fascinating. It has always pained me that I’m so terrified of it, the roots of which can be traced back to my school days. I think my experience will be familiar for many.

“Some people just don’t get maths”
All it takes to validate a child’s belief that they can’t do something is for an adult to agree with them. While this might not be explicitly spelling it out, there are subtle ways a grown up can confirm a lack of confidence in a single subject. For me, it was in primary school when I consistently would get 10/10 on weekly spelling tests, but hover around the 5/10 mark for weekly sums. Well-meaning teachers would say “Don’t worry; some people just aren’t maths people”. There it was: the confirmation that it wasn’t really my fault. I just wasn’t a maths person! Hallelujah; I could stop trying so hard and just accept my natural aptitude!

Things didn’t improve at secondary school either. Because I was grouped in a higher-graded class for English, I was automatically placed in a ‘higher set’ for maths. We were given an enormous tome of a book, far thicker than any other subject textbook, and there were words in there I doubted I could even spell (and words are my thing). I found homework difficult, and keeping up with my classmates was a source of constant stress. Throughout it all, my kind teacher would reassure me that it’s ok – some people just naturally find maths confusing, and I should make sure I take my time.

580-a-self-complementary-graph.jpg“But I understand Chaucer!
All of this patient understanding was admirable, and I have nothing but gratitude for the educators that made my school years as interesting and enriching as they were. I can’t help but feel, however, that if more was done to engage me with maths, I wouldn’t have had the ‘oh well’ attitude towards it. Maybe it would have meant more evenings of frustration and tears as I repeated long division for the seventh time with seven different answers, but would I have approached it differently armed with the knowledge that ‘I’m just not a maths person’ is among one of the main myths surrounding the subject?

I’m going to go ahead and make a giant assumption that, actually, I might feel quite differently about mathematics today had there been more than just a ‘some can and some can’t’ approach to the subject. Had I been encouraged to take the creative analysis I used on essays and apply it to maths problems, I may have just seen things from a different way; something that I am only now able to do. If I was able to read and understand the head-spinningly confusing text that is Chaucer’s The Merchant’s Tale and write an entire essay on what it says about modern marriage (hint: I still don’t know), then surely I could have found a way to mentally navigate simplifying formulaic expressions; all I needed was the right resources and the right inspiration. 

The resources that are available for students now is just staggering to me, and I wish I’d had access to the same type of study aid. Some of the curriculum pages that sit in our library make me wonder how different I’d feel when asked to calculate how much I’ll spend on petrol now I work a little further from home. The biggest maths lesson I wish I had learned back in school? It’s okay to think creatively


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– Claire

Maths cartoon credit – Spiked Math