What is ‘I can’t do maths’ all about?

In the UK it’s common to hear someone say ‘I can’t do maths’. Parents freely admit they ‘can’t do maths’ to their children, friends to their peers, it’s even in the films and TV shows that we watch

I am (…) surrounded by people who declare with an odd sort of pride that they are mathematically illiterate.

David Mumford, Mathematician

The strange thing is that people who CAN do maths often say they can’t. For example, a builder might say ‘I can’t do maths’ but actually use maths perfectly well every day doing things like calculating areas, ordering materials etc.

There are three main reasons why ‘I can’t do maths’ is so common:

1) It is culturally acceptable in the UK to say that you are ‘bad at maths’ - we hear it so often it doesn’t seem a strange thing to say. In some other countries (often ones that perform highly in maths) this is not the case.

2) When we come across maths problems that we can’t work out in our heads quickly, we often panic and say ‘I can’t do maths!’

3) People often have bad memories of school maths that influence how they feel about it now. Also, when we think of maths we may think of things we found difficult at school like algebra or trigonometry, rather than everyday maths.

The impact of ‘I can’t do maths’

The ‘I can’t do maths’ attitude is highly damaging.

If children hear ‘I can’t do maths’ from parents, teachers, friends, television programmes, films etc, they begin to believe that maths isn’t important. Read more on why maths and numeracy is important.

Additionally, people become less embarrassed about their maths and numeracy skills, as it’s acceptable to be ‘rubbish at maths’. This leads to fewer adults seeking to improve their maths skills.

Unfortunately for millions of adults and children in the UK today, ‘I can’t do maths’ has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Doing something about it

This self-fulfilling prophecy is one reason why we focus on attitudes as part of our campaigning.

We believe that changing attitudes will in turn influence behaviour and ultimately skill levels.

Where numeracy iniatives can have an influence:

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