Do You Have A Maths Brain?

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Key Stage 2 Maths By: Please log in to see tutor details
Subject: Maths » Key Stage 2 Maths
Last updated: 15/07/2017
Tags: anxiety in maths, confidence in maths, how to improve your maths?, maths and neuroscience, myths about maths

Not a maths person? Feel you just can’t do it or don’t have the brain for it? Does maths cause you anxiety? According to an AP-AOL News poll of 1,000 adults, a whopping 40% said they hated maths at school; but why do so many dislike this subject, more than any other one? There are perhaps many reasons for this, but here I would like to address those that are close to my heart.

Learning needs to be individual
Jo Boaler, Professor of Mathematics Education, Stanford University, says that there is a myth out there, which unfortunately many teachers believe too; that one needs to have a 'maths' brain in order to do maths. Neuroscientists are proving through the latest technology in brain imaging, that this myth is untrue and that we all in fact posses mathematical intelligence; this means EVERYONE has the ability to do maths, but the real difference lies in how each person does maths. Jo also continues to explain, in her TedX talk (2016), that children will never go beyond what they believe, as this is linked to cognition. If a child 'believes' they can't do maths this will directly impact their performance. She emphasises that the current approach to this subject, in the classroom, needs developing and that the new evidence being discovered, about the brain, needs to filter down into our educational environments.

Cognitive Neuroscientist, Dr Caroline Leaf, says that we have all been given 7 types of thinking to help us succeed in learning and life. These are:
visual/ spatial
kinaesthetic (movement)
intrapersonal (deep thinking)
interpersonal (social)
linguistic (words)
logical/ mathematical

Each one has a unique combination of these different types. No two people on the planet have the same thinking combination,’ she explains in her 5 step learning process, The Switch on Your Brain programme. These differences mean we each learn and think in a way that matches our unique combination, which is as rare as our fingerprints! New ideas/ memories are built in our brains through a cycle that moves through all the types of intelligences. Since each person has their own order, this relates to the way maths is taught. For some, they may start the building process with linguistic thinking and then move onto intrapersonal where another person may begin with visual and then musical and so on. Understanding how a person processes information, brings freedom to each learner in the classroom, allowing them to bring their distinctive perspective to the table of mathematical problem solving and be part of forming the bigger picture of understanding.

The role of the learning environment
A disadvantage to learning in big classes is having the curriculum in the driver’s seat, and the teacher as the final authority on what is right or wrong. This, unfortunately, is robbing children of their mathematical confidence. Dan Finkel, founder of Math for Love, says classrooms need to have room for students 'to doubt, to refuse' and to allow for real thinking. He guards against teachers rushing in too quickly with "correct" answers so that opportunities for engagement and discussion are ushered in, and by so doing, increase understanding across a spectrum of abilities.

When this does not happen, the gap in children's aptitude widens with each year they move up a class. It is no wonder that so many 'hate' maths, putting teachers, who are further up the chain, under undue pressure with managing underperforming students. Instead of curiosity and discovery, this is replaced with anxiety and misbehaviour in trying to 'remember' maths steps. This reduces mathematics to something of a memory game! Einstein said, "Play is the highest form of research."

Jo Boaler, reiterates that our classrooms should incorporate learning where students talk to one another and teachers about ideas, which facilitate questions such as: Why did I choose this method? Is the method similar or different to methods other people used? Isn't this a valuable skill in the workplace too?

In my role as a tutor, I hear a lot of people, young and old, repeatedly say if I could only remember the method, then I could do maths. Right through the history of maths, there have been a variety of 'methods' used. How many parents are stuck at helping their children today because it is now taught in a different way to how they were taught? Further evidencing that there are many ways to solve a problem, not one 'right' way? Children (and maybe some educators too) need to understand this. It's about each individual tapping into their unique understanding of solving a problem.

The importance of connections
Within the learning environment, the value of encouraging learners to spot patterns is significant. Those who are good at maths are able to 'see' the shortcuts and are not bogged down by the weight of working out tricky sums. Although maths is like building a house, layer upon layer, it is also very much about connections and 'seeing' the relationships between concepts. Teaching topics as isolated units breaks this link down, limiting students to make the necessary associations. An example here would be teaching that 2/5 is equivalent to 0.4, which is a useful fact to learn, however when all the fifths are presented and changed into decimals, children can easily spot that they go up in two’s or you just double the numerator. This re-enforces the idea of patterns and promotes the discovery of other ones too. Is it any wonder that our children are swimming in a sea of confusion when we teach ideas separately?

In conclusion, is it possible to reduce maths anxiety and thrive in this 'much hated' subject? Neuroscience is proving that it is, as well as those who have been brave enough to face the gremlins! If you or a loved one is suffering the embarrassment of not being able to do maths, finding a safe environment to develop your skills is well worth it. It may by no means be easy and may take courage, but what freedom in any area of life is not worth fighting for?  As a primary school teacher and now a private tutor, I have enjoyed the beauty of watching nervous children and adults panic when trying to solve a mathematical problem, blossom and become confident in their own ability to solve problems. When a child comes home and says, "My teacher moved me up a group today", I am one proud tutor!

Ignacio Estrada sums it all up: If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.

Karen Barker GCSE Maths Tutor (Bristol)

About The Author

"If a child can't learn the way we teach; maybe we should teach the way they learn" - I am passionate about showing students they CAN thrive at maths by tapping into their unique way of learning and understanding things.

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