Maths (or Math)

Why do some of us find it so difficult?

Math (why do so many find it hard?)

Math (why do so many find it hard?)

Maths (or Math).  This word strikes fear into most people or at least it brings up bad memories at school.  Memorising times tables, learning equations and algebra which most of us never use. 

The UK (and the US in fact), both are near the bottom of the league as far as the OECD countries are concerned in terms of numeracy (and literacy) for those between the ages of 16-24. On the other end of the table lies Finland and Japan.  What are they doing in Finland and Japan which we in the UK and the US are not doing in terms of educating our children?

Finland

Let's take this country for instance.  I have read quite a lot about their educational system and why their system works well for the children and older learners. Let's look at a few:

  1. Compulsory school does not start until 7 years old.
    The ethos behind this is that children need to be children and they need to play.  In the UK, compulsory school starts at about 4 and homework is thrust upon them within the first month! I remember when I was at primary school, homework was unheard of. I spent much of the evenings doing extra-curricular activities, practicing my instruments or just playing.

  2. Compulsory tests do not occur until the students are well into their teens
    Now, this brings me to my school days.  There was no such thing called SATs or National Curriculum tests. My first compulsory exams were called 'O' levels (now called GCSEs) and I took that at 16 years old at my last mandatory year at school.  In my opinion, I do not think that children should be subjected to such tests at 6, 8 and 10 because it gives them stress and anxiety.  Yes, I know they will get stress at a later stage in their life and it prepares them for it but.....let children be children.

  3. They have mixed ability classes
    Mmmm......I'm not sure how this one works and I am not really convinced.  Having had a little bit of experience of teaching maths in a secondary school in the UK, I cannot imagine those students who are scoring 90% in the Higher tier specification sitting alongside ones who are struggling with the Foundation tier.  With maths, I do not see how this will work. But, it works in Finland.  I would like to find out how first hand.

  4. Teachers are well looked after and given high status and good pay
    Well, they do not spend more than 4 hours in the classroom and they spend 2 hours a day on "personal development".  In the UK, a lot of NQTs (Newly Qualified Teachers) complain that they are not getting their protected time for development.  Due to cuts in funding, they cannot afford to send them on the relevant courses. 

In terms of them held in high status, one must have a Master's degree before entering the classroom and this qualification is fully subsidised.  Therefore it is very competitive and I imagine that they are highly respected.  Over in the UK, I hear that teachers are shouted at, sworn at and physically abused.  In staff rooms, teachers just tend to moan about the children's behaviour, how much marking they need to do and how much preparation needs to be done at home before the lesson the next day.  Also, the amount of administration that a teacher needs to do in the UK is enormous.

Back to maths

People in the UK are proud to be bad at maths.  When I strike up the odd conversation at the school gates or at a children's social, I mention that I teach A level maths and the response I get is "Really, you must be really clever to do that because I couldn't even do my GCSE maths and I find it so hard!" or "I was never any good at maths at school" which seems to be the most common response.

The reasons why I think most people in the UK find it difficult is:

  • It is generally not taught properly
  • It is perceived as a dry, boring and dull subject as it has been taught in a dry, dull and boring way for years
  • Most people do not admit to having a logical brain

As a science lecturer in two London Further Education colleges, there are new specifications for the GCSE and A level examinations that I have just been published.  These specifications for GCSE Physics, Chemistry and Biology embed a lot of maths which is not just arithmetic.  This may frighten the students but the UK government just wants to 'clutch at straws' to improve numeracy.  In my opinion, forcing it amongst 14 year-olds who have probably had no interest in maths as a separate subject for 10 years is lamentable.  This has to be sorted from the time the children enter school at 4 years old.

Also, in my teacher training days, we have been taught to teach maths in some zany method to get the attention of the children.  Also, this is doomed to fail because no 'bells and whistles' are going to make the children interested in maths. 

All, these facts explain why there is a shortage of math teachers in the UK. Not many people know it well, and those who do are likely not to teach. 

In order to be good at algebra, equations, matrices, and calculus, for example, you must keep practicing questions to do with them.  It is not good just turning up to the lessons and not practicing the rules because you have to exercise that muscle in order to be good at it.  A little like practicing an instrument. You don't just go home after your piano lesson after the teacher has told you to go and practice, then you turn up with the piece, exercise or scale unpracticed! So, it is up to the learner to practice and up to the teacher to make it interesting and relevant.  OK, it is difficult to make Newton-Raphson relevant, but at least try!

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