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?

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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era