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Educators & Maths Anxiety: Inspiring maths-positive futures

10 Nov 2021

A group of 90 teachers, teaching assistants and other people working in education came together last week to discuss maths anxiety, confidence with numbers and how it impacts children and adults.

The online symposium entitled Educators & Maths Anxiety: Inspiring maths-positive futures was organised by National Numeracy and the Maths Anxiety Trust, with panel of experts and practitioners chaired by Sam Sims, CEO of National Numeracy. 

teacher in a classroom

The panel discussing thoughts and taking questions from the audience were: Professor Margaret Brown OBE President of Maths Anxiety Trust; Dr Thomas Hunt, Associate Professor in Psychology, University of Derby; Gillian Lynch, Acting Deputy Head Teacher, St Aidan's Primary School in Wishaw; and Sue Skyrme, Schools & Parental Engagement Expert at National Numeracy, former headteacher and teacher trainer.

Dr Hunt gave a great definition of maths anxiety, saying it is related to worry, intrusive and negative thoughts, that impact a person’s ability to engage with maths learning.

Gillian Lynch, spoke compellingly about her own experience of suffering from maths anxiety from when she was a young child right up to when she began her career in teaching: “My mind went blank; no matter how much support I got in the classroom, I couldn’t do it. I thought I’d never get over this. It becomes a fixed mind set. Its lots of worrying and self-doubt and it can become debilitating and hard to get over.”

But Mrs Lynch did get over fear of maths and responded to an attendee asking what was the breakthrough moment that alleviated her anxiety? “It was more a slow burn [than a breakthrough moment]. It turns out I just had some gaps in my early number knowledge. I realized I was worrying over nothing. I don’t know why I panicked so much about numbers, but the way I learnt at school didn’t suit my way of learning. When I went over it myself, something clicked.” You can find out more about Gillian’s story in this article.

Professor Brown spoke about how maths anxiety has some connection with age, tending to go up to the age 16 and then down again; She also said it is more prevalent in girls and more pronounced in those with low attainment, but not always.

Some recent National Numeracy research found that in people using the National Numeracy Challenge online tool, women feel significantly less confident with numbers than men, even when they have a high level of skill with numbers.

Dr Hunt made the point that lower achievement early on in someone’s life can lead to the development of maths anxiety. He said clearly tackling some of the issues with numeracy skills early on is important and there is lots of evidence to suggest other things feed into anxiety such as negative attitudes, career aspirations – and the impact of maths anxiety becomes part of a vicious cycle holding people back from opportunities in life.

Sue Skyrme talked about how teachers can deal with maths anxiety and told a story about a fantastic student teacher who was so anxious about maths that she gave up her dream of becoming a teacher, despite the fact she would have made an excellent one.  She said that many maths anxious teachers tend not to foster positive mindset in the children in their care as they are not in that place themselves. 

Professor Brown added: “Teachers can develop maths anxiety and fail to make the connections for children as they haven’t made the connections themselves. But sometimes teachers really conscious of how debilitating maths anxiety can be and go out of their way to make subject more friendly and fun.”

Attendee Natasha (not her real name) said she was on her PGCE school placement and had bad experiences with maths when I was in school: “I dread it whenever I hear the word maths. I know I need to overcome this fear and my current mentor is being really helpful and supportive which is starting to build my confidence going forward.”

Attendee Eileen (not her real name) is a teaching assistant and asked for advice: “I would like to do my teaching qualification but with dyslexia, I get worried and stressed about it. I want to do my maths GCSE; can you give any advice?”

Mrs Lynch responded: “Seek extra support – I got a tutor who explained things differently. Don’t hold back – there are so many things you can do online now. You can do it, don’t let this be the barrier that holds you back because you can overcome it!

The National Numeracy Challenge is one of the ways to begin to build confidence and skills with numbers. It takes 10 minutes to get started and you can go at your own pace and in your own time.

Sue Skyrme mused that perhaps maths anxiety is not recognized as much as it should be, saying that opening up spaces in which people can say they are anxious about maths and talk about it more would be helpful.

Dr Hunt agreed: “An event like this, that raises understanding is really important. A huge evidence base now exists to indicate that maths anxiety is a real thing; it can be separable from other forms of anxiety…It exists as a unique construct and plenty of people experience it.”

Photo credit:  Arthur Krijgsman from Pexels

Watch the symposium

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