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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The Conservative-DUP deal is great news for the DUP, but bad news for Theresa May

The DUP has secured a 10 per cent increase in Northern Ireland's budget in return for propping up the Prime Minister.

Well, that’s that then. Theresa May has reached an accord with the Democratic Unionist Party to keep herself in office. Among the items: the triple lock on pensions will remain in place, and the winter fuel allowance will not be means-tested across the United Kingdom. In addition, the DUP have bagged an extra £1bn of spending for Northern Ireland, which will go on schools, hospitals and roads. That’s more than a five per cent increase in Northern Ireland’s budget, which in 2016-7 was just £9.8bn.

The most politically significant item will be the extension of the military covenant – the government’s agreement to look after veterans of war and their families – to Northern Ireland. Although the price tag is small, extending priority access to healthcare to veterans is particularly contentious in Northern Ireland, where they have served not just overseas but in Northern Ireland itself. Sensitivities about the role of the Armed Forces in the Troubles were why the Labour government of Tony Blair did not include Northern Ireland in the covenant in 2000, when elements of it were first codified.

It gives an opportunity for the SNP…

Gina Miller, whose court judgement successfully forced the government into holding a vote on triggering Article 50, has claimed that an increase in spending in Northern Ireland will automatically entail spending increases in Wales and Scotland thanks to the Barnett formula. This allocates funding for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland based on spending in England or on GB-wide schemes.

However, this is incorrect. The Barnett formula has no legal force, and, in any case, is calculated using England as a baseline. However, that won’t stop the SNP MPs making political hay with the issue, particularly as “the Vow” – the last minute promise by the three Unionist party leaders during the 2014 independence referendum – promised to codify the formula. They will argue this breaks the spirit, if not the letter of the vow. 

…and Welsh Labour

However, the SNP will have a direct opponent in Wales. The Welsh Labour party has long argued that the Barnett formula, devised in 1978, gives too little to Wales. They will take the accord with Northern Ireland as an opportunity to argue that the formula should be ripped up and renegotiated.

It risks toxifying the Tories further

The DUP’s socially conservative positions, though they put them on the same side as their voters, are anathema to many voters in England, Scotland and Wales. Although the DUP’s positions on abortion and equal marriage will not be brought to bear on rUK, the association could leave a bad taste in the mouth for voters considering a Conservative vote next time. Added to that, the bumper increase in spending in Northern Ireland will make it even harder to win support for continuing cuts in the rest of the United Kingdom.

All of which is moot if the Conservatives U-Turn on austerity

Of course, all of these problems will fade if the Conservatives further loosen their deficit target, as they did last year. Turning on the spending taps in England, Scotland and Wales is probably their last, best chance of turning around the grim political picture.

It’s a remarkable coup for Arlene Foster

The agreement, which ticks a number of boxes for the DUP, caps off an astonishing reversal of fortunes for the DUP’s leader, Arlene Foster. The significant increase in spending in Northern Ireland – equivalent to the budget of the entirety of the United Kingdom going up by £70bn over two years  – is only the biggest ticket item. The extension of the military covenant to Northern Ireland appeals to two longstanding aims of the DUP. The first is to end “Northern Ireland exceptionalism” wherever possible, and the second is the red meat to their voters in offering better treatment to veterans.

It feels like a lifetime ago when you remember that in March 2017, Foster was a weakened figure having led the DUP into its worst election result since the creation of the devolved assembly at Stormont.

The election result, in which the DUP took the lion’s share of Westminster seats in Northern Ireland, is part of that. But so too are the series of canny moves made by Foster in the aftermath of her March disappointment. By attending Martin McGuinness’s funeral and striking a more consensual note on some issues, she has helped shed some of the blame for the collapse of power-sharing, and proven herself to be a tricky negotiator.

Conservatives are hoping it will be plain sailing for them, and the DUP from now on should take note. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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