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?

Getty
Show Hide image

In your 30s? You missed out on £26,000 and you're not even protesting

The 1980s kids seem resigned to their fate - for now. 

Imagine you’re in your thirties, and you’re renting in a shared house, on roughly the same pay you earned five years ago. Now imagine you have a friend, also in their thirties. This friend owns their own home, gets pay rises every year and has a more generous pension to beat. In fact, they are twice as rich as you. 

When you try to talk about how worried you are about your financial situation, the friend shrugs and says: “I was in that situation too.”

Un-friend, right? But this is, in fact, reality. A study from the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that Brits in their early thirties have a median wealth of £27,000. But ten years ago, a thirty something had £53,000. In other words, that unbearable friend is just someone exactly the same as you, who is now in their forties. 

Not only do Brits born in the early 1980s have half the wealth they would have had if they were born in the 1970s, but they are the first generation to be in this position since World War II.  According to the IFS study, each cohort has got progressively richer. But then, just as the 1980s kids were reaching adulthood, a couple of things happened at once.

House prices raced ahead of wages. Employers made pensions less generous. And, at the crucial point that the 1980s kids were finding their feet in the jobs market, the recession struck. The 1980s kids didn’t manage to buy homes in time to take advantage of low mortgage rates. Instead, they are stuck paying increasing amounts of rent. 

If the wealth distribution between someone in their 30s and someone in their 40s is stark, this is only the starting point in intergenerational inequality. The IFS expects pensioners’ incomes to race ahead of workers in the coming decade. 

So why, given this unprecedented reversal in fortunes, are Brits in their early thirties not marching in the streets? Why are they not burning tyres outside the Treasury while shouting: “Give us out £26k back?” 

The obvious fact that no one is going to be protesting their granny’s good fortune aside, it seems one reason for the 1980s kids’ resignation is they are still in denial. One thirty something wrote to The Staggers that the idea of being able to buy a house had become too abstract to worry about. Instead:

“You just try and get through this month and then worry about next month, which is probably self-defeating, but I think it's quite tough to get in the mindset that you're going to put something by so maybe in 10 years you can buy a shoebox a two-hour train ride from where you actually want to be.”

Another reflected that “people keep saying ‘something will turn up’”.

The Staggers turned to our resident thirty something, Yo Zushi, for his thoughts. He agreed with the IFS analysis that the recession mattered:

"We were spoiled by an artificially inflated balloon of cheap credit and growing up was something you did… later. Then the crash came in 2007-2008, and it became something we couldn’t afford to do. 

I would have got round to becoming comfortably off, I tell myself, had I been given another ten years of amoral capitalist boom to do so. Many of those who were born in the early 1970s drifted along, took a nap and woke up in possession of a house, all mod cons and a decent-paying job. But we slightly younger Gen X-ers followed in their slipstream and somehow fell off the edge. Oh well. "

Will the inertia of the1980s kids last? Perhaps – but Zushi sees in the support for Jeremy Corbyn, a swell of feeling at last. “Our lack of access to the life we were promised in our teens has woken many of us up to why things suck. That’s a good thing. 

“And now we have Corbyn to help sort it all out. That’s not meant sarcastically – I really think he’ll do it.”