This was my reaction to finding maths difficult at university.

Up until then, maths had been easy at school, through O-levels and then A-levels in maths and further maths.

Faced with these difficulties, there was little help other than my tutor suggesting that I should “treat it with the contempt it deserves”; somewhat bizarre advice to someone clearly struggling. Sadly, George Polya’s “How to solve it” didn’t seem to have found its way from Princeton to Cambridge so I was left to my own devices to muddle through… which I just about did.

It was over twenty years later, after a career as a consulting actuary (during which I didn’t actually need any of my university maths!) that I started to hear students again bemoaning “when am I ever going to need this ****?”. I had just begun mentoring some very disengaged 14-19 year-old NEETs and, by accident rather than design, started helping them with their maths.

I soon realised that this was our very natural knee-jerk reaction to finding maths difficult. That realisation has enabled me to build a structure of maths of teaching around some very simple principles:

  • Question with care and listen with patience to elicit a student’s understanding; reaffirm the parts of this understanding that are correct; identify and repair any misconceptions.
  • Teach students the “why?” rather than the “how?” of mathematics, so that a few key, highly-connected principles are learnt rather than lots of easily forgotten or misapplied rules and formulae.
  • Build students’ confidence to become effective, independent maths learners, using technology to allow students to learn at their own pace, in their own time and in their own space.

I have worked as a head of maths curriculum for over 10 years in further education and adult education and overseen the learning of over 10,000 students in that time. We live in a country where half of the working-age population has a numeracy level of a primary school child and 75% of the 16 year-olds who “fail” their maths GCSE each year have still not achieved it two years’ later.

It is possible to rebuild the confidence of people who have had bad experiences of maths in the past. It’s not easy: but it should be easy to start by showing care.


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