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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What is the Scottish Six and why are people getting so upset about it?

The BBC is launching a new Scottish-produced TV channel. And it's already causing a stooshie. 

At first glance, it should be brilliant news. The BBC’s director general Tony Hall has unveiled a new TV channel for Scotland, due to start broadcasting in 2018. 

It will be called BBC Scotland (a label that already exists, confusingly), and means the creation of 80 new journalism jobs – a boon at a time when the traditional news industry is floundering. While the details are yet to be finalised, it means that a Scottish watcher will be able to turn on the TV at 7pm and flick to a Scottish-produced channel. Crucially, it will have a flagship news programme at 9pm.

The BBC is pumping £19m into the channel and digital developments, as well as another £1.2m for BBC Alba (Scotland’s Gaelic language channel). What’s not to like? 

One thing in particular, according to the Scottish National Party. The announcement of a 9pm news show effectively kills the idea of replacing News at Six. 

Leading the charge for “a Scottish Six” is John Nicolson, the party’s Westminster spokesman for culture, media and sport. A former BBC presenter himself, Nicolson has tried to frame the debate as a practical one. 

“Look at the running order this week,” he told the Today programme:

“You’ll see that the BBC network six o’clock news repeatedly runs leading on an English transport story, an English health story, an English education story. 

“That’s right and proper because of the majority of audience in the UK are English, so absolutely reasonable that English people should want to see and hear English news, but equally reasonable that Scottish people should not want to listen to English news.”

The SNP’s opponents think they spy fake nationalist outrage. The Scottish Conservatives shadow culture secretary Jackson Carlaw declared: “Only they, with their inherent and serial grievance agenda, could find fault with this.” 

The critics have a point. The BBC has become a favourite punch bag for cybernats. It has been accused of everything from doctored editing during the independence referendum to shrinking Scotland on the weather map

Meanwhile, the SNP’s claim to want more coverage of Scottish policies seems rather hollow at a time when at least one journalist claims the party is trying to silence him

As for the BBC, it says the main reason for not scrapping News at Six is simply that it is popular in Scotland already. 

But if the SNP is playing it up, there is no doubt that TV schedules can be annoying north of the border. When I was a kid, at a time when #indyref was only a twinkle in Alex Salmond’s eye, one of my main grievances was that children’s TV was all scheduled to match the English holidays. I’ve migrated to London and BBC iPlayer, but I do feel truly sorry for anyone in Glasgow who has lost half an hour to hearing about Southern Railways. 

Then there's the fact that the Scottish government could do with more scrutiny. 

“I’m at odds with most Labour folk on this, as I’ve long been a strong supporter of a Scottish Six,” Duncan Hothershall, who edits the Scottish website Labour Hame. “I think the lack of a Scotland-centred but internationally focused news programme is one of the factors that has allowed SNP ministers to avoid responsibility for failures.”

Still, he’s not about to complain if that scrutiny happens at nine o’clock instead: “I think the news this morning of a new evening channel with a one hour news programme exactly as the Scottish Six was envisaged is enormously good news.”

Let the reporting begin. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.