I must declare my interest in maths before I write. I am a Maths secondary state school teacher and am also doing a Doctorate in Education specialising in Maths at Cambridge University (early stages still, but interested in Maths phobia/anxiety). Previously I worked in finance, both as a trader at the investment bank Lehman Brothers and an accountant at PwC. So you won’t be surprised to hear that numbers are an important part of my life, and indeed strongly tied to my identity.
Seeing the value
I think that mathematics is a beautiful subject, an expression of the ingenuity of humanity to find patterns and order in the real world. I try to embody that inquisitive spirit to my students every day in class (unless it’s the last lesson at 2pm on a Friday when they might need calming down!) However, I also accept that many people in the UK leave formal school with painful memories of a negative mathematical experience.
These same people will still need to use their numeracy skills in their day-to-day lives and their place of employment. If they are running scared of numbers and unable to perform basic numerical tasks, this will not only impair their ability to perform their roles, but they might make wrong choices based on incorrectly processing and interpreting data.
I believe that humans are born with the ability to count and recognise patterns. Whilst not everyone can aim to win the Fields medal (the mathematical equivalent of a Nobel prize), everyone can achieve competence in numeracy. I’m currently writing a book about how improving numerical skills can help people in their everyday lives – whether you’re planning a gym routine, baking a cake or even dating! I genuinely believe that numerically competent people are more effective and thus happier people.
Bringing about a cultural change
In the UK, there needs to be a wholescale shift in attitudes towards mathematics and numbers. It is acceptable, indeed praiseworthy, to tell friends loudly that “I can’t do maths”. Yet if anyone proclaims that they can’t read or don’t’ read, the reaction would be one of shock. And rightly so, illiteracy in modern Britain is an unacceptable failing of our society. But equally so, innumeracy should not be tolerated in a 21st century modern economy. The education system needs to ensure that those leaving with a Maths GCSE are also competent at numeracy. And we need to support adults who have left formal education to get up to scratch with their numeracy.
It is imperative to change the culture in the UK to make it one where maths is seen in a positive light. (Indeed I’ve told my school students that one day I’ll perform a Maths rap with chart-topping grime / hip hop musician Stormzy to make numbers even more cool to students!) Mathematics education usually ends after school, but numeracy is something adults will continue to be exposed to for the rest of their lives. And so, the case for a national numeracy narrative is more important than ever.
Bobby Seagull is University Challenge star, maths teacher and ambassador for National Numeracy. He is currently fronting a money management course with the Open University.
Photo credit: Open University.