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?

Felipe Araujo
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Manchester's Muslim community under siege: "We are part of the fabric of this nation"

As the investigation into last week's bombing continues, familiar media narratives about Islam conflict with the city's support for its Muslim population.

“You guys only come when something like this happens,” said one of the worshippers at Manchester's Victoria Park Mosque, visibly annoyed at the unusual commotion. Four days after the attack that killed 22 people, this congregation, along with many others around the city, is under a microscope.

During Friday prayers, some of the world’s media came looking for answers. On the eve of Ramadan, the dark shadow of terrorism looms large over most mosques in Manchester and beyond.

“People who do this kind of thing are no Muslims,” one man tells me.

It’s a routine that has become all too familiar to mosque goers in the immediate aftermath of a major terror attack. In spite of reassurances from authorities and the government, Muslims in this city of 600,000 feel under siege. 

“The media likes to portray us as an add-on, an addition to society,” Imam Irfan Christi tells me. “I would like to remind people that in World War I and World War II Muslims fought for this nation. We are part of the fabric of this great nation that we are.”

On Wednesday, soon after it was revealed the perpetrator of last Monday’s attack, Salman Ramadan Abedi, worshipped at the Manchester Islamic Centre in the affluent area of Didsbury, the centre was under police guard, with very few people allowed in. Outside, with the media was impatiently waiting, a young man was giving interviews to whoever was interested.

“Tell me, what is the difference between a British plane dropping bombs on a school in Syria and a young man going into a concert and blowing himself up,” he asked rhetorically. “Do you support terrorists, then?” one female reporter retorted. 

When mosque officials finally came out, they read from a written statement. No questions were allowed. 

“Some media reports have reported that the bomber worked at the Manchester Islamic Centre. This is not true,” said the director of the centre’s trustees, Mohammad el-Khayat. “We express concern that a very small section of the media are manufacturing stories.”

Annoyed by the lack of information and under pressure from pushy editors, eager for a sexy headline, the desperation on the reporters’ faces was visible. They wanted something, from anyone, who had  even if a flimsy connection to the local Muslim community or the mosque. 

Two of them turned to me. With curly hair and black skin, in their heads I was the perfect fit for what a Muslim was supposed to look like.

"Excuse me, mate, are you from the mosque, can I ask you a couple of questions,” they asked. “What about?,” I said. "Well, you are a Muslim, right?" I laughed. The reporter walked away.

At the Victoria Park Mosque on Friday, Imam Christi dedicated a large portion of his sermon condemning last Monday’s tragedy. But he was also forced to once again defend his religion and its followers, saying Islam is about peace and that nowhere in the Koran it says Muslims should pursue jihad.

“The Koran has come to cure people. It has come to guide people. It has come to give harmony in society,” he said. “And yet that same Koran is being described as blood thirsty? Yet that same Koran is being abused to justify terror and violence. Who de we take our Islam from?”

In spite of opening its doors to the world’s media, mosques in Britain’s major cities know they can do very little to change a narrative they believe discriminates against Muslims. They seem to feel that the very presence of reporters in these places every time a terror attack happens reveals an agenda.

Despite this, on the streets of Manchester it has proved difficult to find anyone who had a bad thing to say about Islam and the city’s Muslim community. Messages of unity were visible all over town. One taxi driver, a white working-class British man, warned me to not believe anything I read in the media.

“Half of my friends are British Muslims,” he said even before asked. “ These people that say Islam is about terrorism have no idea what they are talking about.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.

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