British people often boast about being ‘bad at maths’. Here’s why that causes genuine harm

Posted on: 2018-09-12 06:00:00

Each new academic year, a fresh batch of year 7 students arrive in my maths classroom. One of the things I try to do is face head-on a question that they might not yet know they need answering, but will soon be asking unless I deal with it from the off. “What are you doing here?” I ask them. “Why on earth did someone think it appropriate to force you to study mathematics for the next five years?”

For some people – as a recent study from the Queen’s University Belfast shows – the unpleasantness of this prospect has some medical foundation. We are perhaps used to the idea of dyslexia, where people struggle to make easy sense of text, but less familiar with dyscalculia. Those with it find that – as letters might do for dyslexics – numbers just will not behave.

For those of us lucky to find reading easy, or sums straightforward, this is terrifically difficult to empathise with. Unfortunately, for a long time, those with dyslexia were dismissed as having low ability and found their education was often ruined as a result. Thankfully, screening is now far more thorough.

Sadly, those with dyscalculia have an extra burden. While admitting “I can’t read” has some social stigma, “I’m just bad at maths” is a statement that almost carries kudos. What this means is that those who genuinely find mathematics problematic are often masked by the acceptance that it is fine to do poorly in the subject. This is a great pity, because numbers are such a powerful tool. What teachers do in schools is present a suite of languages: means by which we learn to interrogate the world.

Students aim to grasp the language of poetry, some HTML, perhaps, a modern foreign language, the ability to read music. Mathematics sits among these as another way by which we codify our reality in order to understand it better. As such, along with poetry and symphonies, numbers and algebraic symbols are supremely elegant means by which we can “see” our world. To diminish this in our culture – and risk failing those who have genuine struggles with this language in the same way that dyslexics do – is to narrow our perspective, the very antithesis of what a good education is.

Source: The Guardian

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