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?

Photo: Getty
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Shock Wales YouGov poll shows that Labour's Ukip nightmare is coming true

The fear that voting Ukip would prove a gateway drug for Labour voters appears to be being borne out. 

An astonishing new poll for the Cardiff University Governance Centre and ITV Cymru shows a historic result: the Conservatives ending a 167-year wait for an election victory in Wales.

The numbers that matter:

Conservatives: 40 per cent

Labour: 30 per cent

Plaid Cymru: 13 per cent

Liberal Democrats: 8 per cent

Ukip: 6 per cent

Others: 3 per cent

And for context, here’s what happened in 2015:

Labour 36.9 per cent

Conservatives 27.2 per cent

Ukip 13.6 per cent

Plaid Cymru 12.1 per cent

Liberal Democrat 6.5 per cent

Others 2.6 per cent

There’s a lot to note here. If repeated at a general election, this would mean Labour losing an election in Wales for the first time since the First World War. In addition to losing the popular vote, they would shed ten seats to the Tories.

We're talking about a far more significant reverse than merely losing the next election. 

I don’t want to detract from how bad the Labour performance is in a vacuum – they have lost 6.9 per cent of their vote on 2015, in any case the worst election performance for Labour in Wales since the rout of 1983.  But the really terrifying thing for Labour is not what is happening to their own vote, though that is pretty terrifying.

It’s what’s happened to the Conservative vote – growing in almost every direction. There is some direct Labour to Tory slippage. But the big problem is the longtime fear of Labour MPs – that voting for Ukip would be a gateway drug to voting for the mainstream right – appears to be being realised. Don't forget that most of the Ukip vote in Wales is drawn from people who voted Labour in 2010. (The unnoticed shift of the 2010-5 parliament in a lot of places was a big chunk of the Labour 2010 vote went to Ukip, but was replaced by a chunk of the 2010 Liberal Democrat vote.) 

If repeated across the United Kingdom, the Tory landslide will be larger than the 114 majority suggested by the polls and a simple national swing.

As I’ve said before, polls are useful, but they are not the be-all and end-all. The bad news is that this very much supports the pattern at elections since the referendum – Labour falling back, the Tories losing some votes to the Liberal Democrats but more than making up the loss thanks to the collapse of Ukip.

The word from Welsh Labour is that these figures “look about right” at least as far as the drop in the Labour vote, though of course they have no idea what is going on with their opponents’ vote share. As for the Conservatives, their early experiences on the doorstep do show the Ukip vote collapsing to their benefit.

One Labour MP said to me a few days again that they knew their vote was holding up – what they didn’t know was what was happening to their opponents. That’s particularly significant if you have a “safe seat” but less than 50 per cent of the vote.

Wales has local elections throughout the country on 4 May. They should provide an early sign whether these world-shaking figures are really true. 

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

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