Teaching kids to fear maths will harm Britain's chances in the global economy

The prospect of learning maths scares us, but actually doing the proper stuff is rather enjoyable.

If someone were to give you a maths textbook, what would your reaction be? What about if you were faced with a set of sums to do? Or told you cannot graduate until you have taken a certain number of maths classes?

If these scenarios make you feel nauseous, you are probably an HMA – someone with a high level of maths anxiety. For some people, the threat of a maths test is equivalent to the prospect of walking down a dark alley in an unfamiliar city. People with extremely high levels of mathematics anxiety even experience physical pain.

We know this thanks to a study published, appropriately enough, on Hallowe’en. The research involved recruiting volunteers who rated high and low in maths anxiety. They were put into a magnetic resonance imaging scanner and given a range of tasks to do. Some involved maths quizzes; some tested verbal skills.

In the most illuminating part of the study, the volunteers were told whether it was maths or language tests coming up. The prospect of having their verbal skills tested provoked nothing remarkable in the brain scans. For those who were highly maths-anxious, the signal that a maths test was coming up created a surge of activity in the bilateral dorso-posterior insula. This is a region of the brain associated with the presence of physical pain and the reaction is the same as to a physical threat – you experience the urge to get the hell out of there.

Though many papers reported the research as justification for a fear of maths, it goes far deeper than that. The most important finding from the study is that when the volunteers started to do maths, all that anxiety and pain went away. The prospect of maths scares and sometimes pains us; doing maths is strangely enjoyable. Proper maths, that is – not the endless repetition of learned techniques such as multiplying fractions or ploughing through long division.

The way we teach mathematics is leaving many people mentally scarred. Allow students to develop a feel for numbers by letting them solve puzzles, and everything changes. The message from the Computer-Based Math™ Education summit held at the Royal Institution in London this month goes even further. Allow children to learn maths by using computers to solve problems and not only does the subject get easier, but they leave education ready to work in a world increasingly dominated by digital technology.

This idea is anathema to traditionalists, but something has to change. Just under half of the adult population can’t complete even primary-school maths problems. Adults with poor numeracy skills are twice as likely to be unable to find work; it’s no wonder they are also twice as likely to suffer from depression. Innumeracy leads to poor money management and problems with debt. On 7 November, the charity National Numeracy launched a partnership with the Nationwide Building Society to help people develop numeracy skills to manage their finances.

Economy class

Innumeracy will affect Britain’s ability to compete in a global economy, too. At the beginning of October, the Royal Academy of Engineering announced that the UK can maintain its industrial output only if British universities produce 10,000 more science, technology, engineering and maths graduates every year.

It’s not clear where they are going to come from, because each one will need to leave school with decent maths skills.

If things carry on as they are, we can abandon hope of a role on the world economic stage in the future, all because we’re inflicting pain in maths class. As a doctor might say, if it hurts that much, you’re probably doing it wrong.

Michael Brooks’s “The Secret Anarchy of Science” is published by Profile Books (£8.99)

Scary maths. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What is Israel thinking?

Reuters/New Statesman composite.
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When it comes to social media, we all have a responsibility to avoid sharing upsetting images

If Twitter is the new journalism, we are all editors – and responsible for treating our fellow humans with dignity.

“I wish I hadn’t seen that”, my colleague says from across the desk. It’s been an hour since the first reports came in of a shooting outside Parliament, and the news agency Reuters has started posting photographs of injured people, knocked down by the terrorist as he drove across Westminster Bridge.

In one, a brunette woman leans over a victim whose blood is beginning to stain the wet pavement. Lying on her back, she is framed by scattered postcards sold for tourists which have been knocked to the floor. She is clutching the arm of the woman helping her, but her eyes are staring dead into the photographer’s lens.

Another photograph – the one that my colleague is referring to – disturbs me even more: a man who has fallen (or been pushed?) off the bridge onto a stairwell. He is face down in a pool of blood, his left leg at an unnatural angle. It is impossible to tell if he is alive or not.

Briefly, before I scroll past, I wonder if someone, somewhere is seeing the same picture and experiencing a shock of recognition as they recognise their friend’s clothes.

And then there is one picture which I now cannot find on Twitter, but which, lying in bed last night, I could not stop thinking of: a woman’s legs extended from under the wheel of a bus, her skirt hiked up to show her underwear, her shoes missing.

We are a desk of journalists covering an attack on the Houses of Parliament, so I keep scrolling. It is only later, in an article by the Telegraph, that I learn a junior doctor has declared the woman dead.

Of course, the shock of seeing images like these is nothing compared to what war reporters, doctors or police go through on a regular basis. But a 2015 study at the University of Toronto found that extended exposure to violent or disturbing material can have a severe effect on journalists’ mental health.

The impact can be particularly confusing when one does not anticipate seeing violence.On social media, we increasingly encounter images this way: without warning and without a chance to steel ourselves. This is particularly a problem when it comes to members of the public, whose jobs don’t require them to look at shocking material but who can nevertheless be exposed to it just by virtue of using a social media network.

It is for this reason that, shortly after Reuters published their photographs of the Westminster victims, prominent journalists began posting asking their colleagues not to retweet them. Some protested the fact that Reuters had published them at all.

In today’s media landscape, news moves fast and social media faster. Where a picture editor would have previously had until their print deadline to decide which images to run, now photographers are able to send their work back to the office almost instantaneously, and editors must make a snap decision about what to release.

Deciding what images to use can be a difficult call – especially under pressure. On the one hand, there is the urge to not turn away, to bear witness to the full magnitude of what has happened, even if it is shocking and upsetting. On the other, there is the need to treat fellow human beings with dignity, and particularly to avoid, where possible, showing images of victims whose families have not yet been informed.

Social media makes this process even more difficult. Once released online, photographs of the Westminster attack were quickly saved and re-posted by private individuals, stripped of context or warning. One can choose not to follow the Reuters Pictures account, but one cannot necessarily avoid seeing an image once it is being retweeted, reposted and recycled by private accounts.

As the line between traditional news and social media blurs and we increasingly become participants in the news, as well as consumers of it, our sense of responsibility also shifts. On Twitter, we are our own editors, each charged with making sure we extend dignity to our fellow humans, even – especially – when the news is dramatic and fast-moving.

I was glad, this morning, to encounter fewer and fewer photographs – to not see the girl lying under the bus again. But at 3am last night, I thought about her, and about her family; about them knowing that journalists on desks across Britain had seen up their loved one’s skirt during the last moments of her life. It was, without putting too fine a point on it, no way to encounter a fellow human being.

Over the next few days, we will find out more about who the victims were. The media will release images of them in happier times, tell us about their jobs and careers and children – as is already happening with Keith Palmer, the policeman who we now know died on the Parliamentary Estate.

It is those images which I hope will be shared: not just as a way to resist fear, but as a way of acknowledging them as more than victims – of forging a different connection, based not in horror and voyeurism, but in a small moment of shared humanity.

There is no shame in being affected by graphic images, however removed one “ought” to feel. If you would like someone to talk to, Mind can provide details of local services.

The BBC also provides advice for those upset by the news.

Find out how to turn off Twitter image previews here.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland