One of the most embarrassing things I have to admit to on a regular basis is that I struggle with maths. I struggle so badly that I suspect I have a learning disability, although I’ve never been diagnosed and am a bit reluctant to categorize my lack of maths skills as such, mainly because it doesn’t really affect my day to day life in the same way that – for example – dyslexia or ADHD affect people living with those conditions.

A recent study I read about in today’s Age has shown that Victorian girls are consistently outperformed by boys in maths at VCE level – in fact, boys achieve better results in all mathematics subjects offered. I can only speculate as to why boys are more successful than girls in these subjects, and I certainly believe the reasons are cultural and not biological or “evolutionary,” as many might argue. But having completed my entire education in Victorian public schools, and being one of those students who ‘slipped through the cracks’ in every one of my maths classes, I can certainly see how anyone, whether a boy or a girl, might feel completely disinclined to try and learn maths if they constantly lag behind the rest of the class and never seem to be able to catch up.

From Prep to Year 11, I was one of those students who could not catch up. This is despite being reasonably good at everything else – I usually achieved excellent marks in English and aside from maths, I never seriously struggled with any other subjects. If I didn’t have the most coherent understanding of science, I had a keen interest in it and (secretly) loved going to science classes. Mind you, once the science got super mathsy, I lost the thread entirely. Thankyou, Year 10 chemistry!

This is what constantly confuses me about my maths skills – I was a decent student up until Year 11, and an excellent student by the end of Year 12, achieving marks that put me close to the top of my year. How can a student excel at every subject she takes, but not be able to solve basic maths problems? And even now, at the age of 24 and having graduated from uni?

My experience of maths classes in primary and high school was so depressing it still upsets me to think about it. I remember crying during a maths test in Grade 2 because everyone around me was finished and I was still stuck on the third sum. I remember being repeatedly humiliated in Grade 4 while playing a ridiculous game, which involved competing with another student to be the first to answer a sum in front of the class. I was always beaten. One year,when I was about eight or nine years old, I was shunted off to the remedial class with all of the kids who struggled with everything at school (reading, writing, maths, socializing). That might have been alright if it was just a remedial maths class, but it covered everything – I could read at a very high level, had little trouble socializing and could write coherently. I didn’t understand why I had to read books with one word printed on every page when I had a ‘chapter book’ in my schoolbag. Adding insult to injury was the fact that the maths component of those remedial classes made no impact on my maths skills. I continued to struggle in the regular classroom.

Once I got to high school, I was fairly used to being slow at maths, and adopted a sullen, ‘quitter’ style attitude that was apt considering I was a teen. I continued to flounder at the bottom of the maths class, although I compensated by frequently talking back to the teacher and openly laughing at him when he came to school with an eyepatch, after what I can only assume was a cataract operation. Then he got sick and was replaced by a teacher who is now a convicted paedophile. Awesome.

In Year 10, something bizarre happened and I was put in the advanced maths class with all the girls who were good at it. I can only assume that I was placed there because I hung out with girls who were good at maths, or because I was good at everything else and they just assumed my maths marks were an anomaly. Whatever the reason, my teacher soon realized that placing me in the advanced class was a mistake, and I got relocated to the simple maths class. I still couldn’t do the work.

I try to avoid apportioning blame to schools and teachers when students underperform, or have behavioural or social problems. Unfortunately, I don’t think there is any other explanation in my instance. Half of my issues with maths stem from the way I was taught – not through discussion, practical and collective problem solving or logical analysis – but by opening a book full of numbers and symbols that meant nothing to me, and were not adequately explained in the book or by the teacher, unless you count a rehash of the same phenomenon with more bewildering numbers and symbols. If it wasn’t the textbook, it was the teacher who drew some graphs and/or triangles on the whiteboard, with the best explanation they could manage in five minutes, then problem solving from the textbook. And if it wasn’t the teacher trying her best with limited time and resources, it was my best friend writing solutions on her eraser and throwing it at me when I was nearly having a break down on the other side of the table during a test.

Once, my Year 10 maths teacher held my hand before she handed back an exam that I’d failed. I guess she felt sorry for me because she knew that I just didn’t get it, but also knew that I wasn’t stupid. This particular teacher did try really hard to help me, but to no avail – I gave up on maths after Year 11. As well intentioned as she was – and she really gave me a lot of her time – my problems were so far advanced by that stage that honestly, I needed to start again from the beginning.

Had teaching methods been more flexible and constructive when I was in primary school, rather than being based on exclusion and humiliation if you made a mistake, and had my maths teachers given a crap before Year 10, perhaps maths wouldn’t be such an issue for me now. I have no doubt that I was a ‘problem child’ with ‘special needs’ when it came to maths. I accept that I will never be as skilled with numbers and logic problems as I am with words and analysis. But it would be nice not to feel so ashamed when I can’t add up a bill in my head, or work out whether the change I’ve been given in the milk bar is correct. The culture of maths education needs to change if students with the same problems as me are to be given a chance at understanding the very basics, and it’s this same culture that needs to be adjusted if the outcomes of boys and girls are to be equalized at VCE level.

November 16, 2010 at 6:36 am |

Here’s an interesting article from earlier this year:

Female teachers’ math anxiety affects girls’ math achievement

Sian L. Beilock, Elizabeth A. Gunderson, Gerardo Ramirez, and Susan C. Levine

(http://www.pnas.org/content/107/5/1860.full?sid=3ee4d9e9-38dc-41c8-8e9d-90f6969b45ab)

Abstract

People’s fear and anxiety about doing math—over and above actual math ability—can be an impediment to their math achievement. We show that when the math-anxious individuals are female elementary school teachers, their math anxiety carries negative consequences for the math achievement of their female students. Early elementary school teachers in the United States are almost exclusively female (>90%), and we provide evidence that these female teachers’ anxieties relate to girls’ math achievement via girls’ beliefs about who is good at math. First- and second-grade female teachers completed measures of math anxiety. The math achievement of the students in these teachers’ classrooms was also assessed. There was no relation between a teacher’s math anxiety and her students’ math achievement at the beginning of the school year. By the school year’s end, however, the more anxious teachers were about math, the more likely girls (but not boys) were to endorse the commonly held stereotype that “boys are good at math, and girls are good at reading” and the lower these girls’ math achievement. Indeed, by the end of the school year, girls who endorsed this stereotype had significantly worse math achievement than girls who did not and than boys overall. In early elementary school, where the teachers are almost all female, teachers’ math anxiety carries consequences for girls’ math achievement by influencing girls’ beliefs about who is good at math.

December 4, 2010 at 6:05 am |

Also, maths ≠ calculating.