# What if nobody is bad at maths? | Mathematics

When I tell people I’m a mathematician, one of the first things many of them say is “I’m really bad at maths”. Sometimes I can detect a touch of pride in their voices, but I suspect this is more like bravado – an attempt to hide a certain amount of insecurity, or block out often painful classroom memories.

I’m sad that the subject is so polarising, with some believing they are “maths people” and others convinced they’re bad at it. But very few aspects of human behaviour are so black and white. Our abilities might fall along a continuum, but the most important thing is that everyone can get better if they’re helped in the right way. You won’t necessarily believe that if you’ve been scarred by your experiences at school. But one thing I know is that when I help five- and six-year-olds with maths they typically scream with excitement, and only learn to fear it later.

The basic problem, in my view, is that in our haste to convey content – fractions, percentages, algorithms – we don’t pay enough attention to feelings. Typical curriculums fail to imbue children with a love and appreciation of maths. This is not the teachers’ fault – the education system judges students on performance, not enjoyment. However, if we focus on content at the expense of feelings then that content is unlikely to stick. Worse, we end up producing maths-phobic or maths-sceptical people who then find it difficult to apply important logical and quantitative reasoning techniques in the real world. Just how dangerous this can be became clear during the pandemic. In the early days, people who did not understand exponentials thought that predictions of future widespread infection were just fearmongering. Later on, the fact that there were a large number of infections among vaccinated people was interpreted by some as a sign they weren’t working – rather than exactly what you would expect if the majority of the population had received their jabs.

As scientist in residence at the Art Institute of Chicago, I’ve been teaching art students at undergraduate level for eight years. Most of them were badly put off maths at school. I ask them what they found so disagreeable, and there are clear recurring themes: memorisation, especially of times tables, timed tests, right-and-wrong answers, and being made to feel stupid for making mistakes. Often they felt alienated because they had searching questions – such as why does -(-1)=1; do numbers exist; is maths real – but they were told these were silly or irrelevant, and they should get back to their repetitive, algorithmic homework assignments.

I sometimes think that the current educational approach turns so many people off that it would be better not to teach maths at all, because at least then we’d be having no effect rather than a negative one. Prime minister Rishi Sunak has a point when he says we have an “anti-maths” culture, but he is wrong to think we can improve the situation by extending compulsory maths to 18. The last thing we need is more years of trauma-inducing maths lessons. Those who like it already carry on with it, so we’d just be forcing the disillusioned to continue studying something they don’t enjoy.

This isn’t a call to give up, though: instead, we should teach maths differently, in a way that doesn’t churn out mathophobes. When five-year-olds first encounter the subject, it’s as a creative, open-ended activity, involving play and exploration. They learn about numbers using colourful blocks that join up in different ways. They fit these shapes together and tell different stories with them. Just a year or two later, though, maths becomes a discipline with strict rules and a forbidding regime of right or wrong answers. Instead we should try to maintain that sense of exploration and open-endedness, of trying out different approaches to a problem and seeing what works. What’s important about times tables, for example, is not the answers, but the different possible relationships between numbers. What’s important about equations is not the solution, but the techniques we use to untangle a problem using logic. Some of these exercises could be presented more like a Sherlock Holmes mystery, where the focus is on how the clues are pieced together and not just on what the answer must be.

One powerful way of maintaining interest is to link maths to whatever the children already care about, whether that’s food, singing, dancing, drawing, creative writing, sport, Lego, Minecraft or something else. Mathematical concepts can be related to the real world, rather than something abstract: commutativity, for example, might be presented as a dry numerical exercise along the lines of 5+2 = 2+5. Or we can bring it to life by talking about whether or not it makes any difference if tea is made by pouring hot water over tea leaves or by dropping tea leaves into hot water.

These kinds of approaches will mean covering material more slowly. Some will argue that this is “dumbing down”. On the contrary, we will be teaching maths at a much deeper level, with the likelihood of these lessons being fully absorbed – rather than drilling students on a bunch of algorithms they’re able to grasp only superficially and will forget once they stop using them.

The idea that anyone is naturally “bad” at maths is pernicious in several ways. It ignores the amount of work it takes to get good at it. And it does take work. But that work doesn’t need to be hard – it can be challenging, but with a sense of adventure and ultimately reward, rather than discouragement. The “bad” trope also provides people with an easy reason to give up, and the education system concurs by writing them off as fundamentally unsuited. Finally, it gives educators and policymakers an excuse not to think about teaching in a more flexible and creative way, to design new approaches that stop people falling out of love with the subject.

It breaks my heart that the current system so often turns five-year-olds’ excitement into 18-year-olds’ fear. One thing is clear: if you think of yourself as belonging to the “bad at … ” camp, it’s not because you failed maths. It’s because maths failed you.

*Is Maths Real? How Simple Questions Lead Us to Mathematics’ Deepest Truths by Eugenia Cheng is published by Profile **on **1 June**.*

**Further reading**

Limitless Mind: Learn, Lead and Live Without Barriers by Jo Boaler (Thorsons, £14.99)

The Gendered Brain: The New Neuroscience that Shatters the Myth of the Female Brain by Gina Rippon (Vintage, £9.99)

Mathematics for Human Flourishing by Francis Su and Christopher Jackson (Yale, £12.99)

When I tell people I’m a mathematician, one of the first things many of them say is “I’m really bad at maths”. Sometimes I can detect a touch of pride in their voices, but I suspect this is more like bravado – an attempt to hide a certain amount of insecurity, or block out often painful classroom memories.

I’m sad that the subject is so polarising, with some believing they are “maths people” and others convinced they’re bad at it. But very few aspects of human behaviour are so black and white. Our abilities might fall along a continuum, but the most important thing is that everyone can get better if they’re helped in the right way. You won’t necessarily believe that if you’ve been scarred by your experiences at school. But one thing I know is that when I help five- and six-year-olds with maths they typically scream with excitement, and only learn to fear it later.

The basic problem, in my view, is that in our haste to convey content – fractions, percentages, algorithms – we don’t pay enough attention to feelings. Typical curriculums fail to imbue children with a love and appreciation of maths. This is not the teachers’ fault – the education system judges students on performance, not enjoyment. However, if we focus on content at the expense of feelings then that content is unlikely to stick. Worse, we end up producing maths-phobic or maths-sceptical people who then find it difficult to apply important logical and quantitative reasoning techniques in the real world. Just how dangerous this can be became clear during the pandemic. In the early days, people who did not understand exponentials thought that predictions of future widespread infection were just fearmongering. Later on, the fact that there were a large number of infections among vaccinated people was interpreted by some as a sign they weren’t working – rather than exactly what you would expect if the majority of the population had received their jabs.

As scientist in residence at the Art Institute of Chicago, I’ve been teaching art students at undergraduate level for eight years. Most of them were badly put off maths at school. I ask them what they found so disagreeable, and there are clear recurring themes: memorisation, especially of times tables, timed tests, right-and-wrong answers, and being made to feel stupid for making mistakes. Often they felt alienated because they had searching questions – such as why does -(-1)=1; do numbers exist; is maths real – but they were told these were silly or irrelevant, and they should get back to their repetitive, algorithmic homework assignments.

I sometimes think that the current educational approach turns so many people off that it would be better not to teach maths at all, because at least then we’d be having no effect rather than a negative one. Prime minister Rishi Sunak has a point when he says we have an “anti-maths” culture, but he is wrong to think we can improve the situation by extending compulsory maths to 18. The last thing we need is more years of trauma-inducing maths lessons. Those who like it already carry on with it, so we’d just be forcing the disillusioned to continue studying something they don’t enjoy.

This isn’t a call to give up, though: instead, we should teach maths differently, in a way that doesn’t churn out mathophobes. When five-year-olds first encounter the subject, it’s as a creative, open-ended activity, involving play and exploration. They learn about numbers using colourful blocks that join up in different ways. They fit these shapes together and tell different stories with them. Just a year or two later, though, maths becomes a discipline with strict rules and a forbidding regime of right or wrong answers. Instead we should try to maintain that sense of exploration and open-endedness, of trying out different approaches to a problem and seeing what works. What’s important about times tables, for example, is not the answers, but the different possible relationships between numbers. What’s important about equations is not the solution, but the techniques we use to untangle a problem using logic. Some of these exercises could be presented more like a Sherlock Holmes mystery, where the focus is on how the clues are pieced together and not just on what the answer must be.

One powerful way of maintaining interest is to link maths to whatever the children already care about, whether that’s food, singing, dancing, drawing, creative writing, sport, Lego, Minecraft or something else. Mathematical concepts can be related to the real world, rather than something abstract: commutativity, for example, might be presented as a dry numerical exercise along the lines of 5+2 = 2+5. Or we can bring it to life by talking about whether or not it makes any difference if tea is made by pouring hot water over tea leaves or by dropping tea leaves into hot water.

These kinds of approaches will mean covering material more slowly. Some will argue that this is “dumbing down”. On the contrary, we will be teaching maths at a much deeper level, with the likelihood of these lessons being fully absorbed – rather than drilling students on a bunch of algorithms they’re able to grasp only superficially and will forget once they stop using them.

The idea that anyone is naturally “bad” at maths is pernicious in several ways. It ignores the amount of work it takes to get good at it. And it does take work. But that work doesn’t need to be hard – it can be challenging, but with a sense of adventure and ultimately reward, rather than discouragement. The “bad” trope also provides people with an easy reason to give up, and the education system concurs by writing them off as fundamentally unsuited. Finally, it gives educators and policymakers an excuse not to think about teaching in a more flexible and creative way, to design new approaches that stop people falling out of love with the subject.

It breaks my heart that the current system so often turns five-year-olds’ excitement into 18-year-olds’ fear. One thing is clear: if you think of yourself as belonging to the “bad at … ” camp, it’s not because you failed maths. It’s because maths failed you.

*Is Maths Real? How Simple Questions Lead Us to Mathematics’ Deepest Truths by Eugenia Cheng is published by Profile **on **1 June**.*

**Further reading**

Limitless Mind: Learn, Lead and Live Without Barriers by Jo Boaler (Thorsons, £14.99)

The Gendered Brain: The New Neuroscience that Shatters the Myth of the Female Brain by Gina Rippon (Vintage, £9.99)

Mathematics for Human Flourishing by Francis Su and Christopher Jackson (Yale, £12.99)

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