Why is it acceptable for children to say “I’m not very good at maths”?

May 14, 2014 — 4 Comments

If we hear a child say ‘I can’t read very well’, we do something – praise the child, motivate, encourage. And it’s rare to hear an adult saying they’re a poor reader. When it comes to maths, though, it’s a different matter. We’ve probably all heard, “…and I can’t help him, because I’ve always been rubbish at maths…” or similar. We may even have said it ourselves.

Therein lies the problem. Children will tell you they’re bad at maths because they hear adults say it, or worse, their own parents. It becomes socially acceptable – it’s already socially acceptable, and in some cases, almost a badge of honour. Compare this to reading, and you’ll see the struggle we’re up against. It is ingrained in our culture and has been for a generation.

But at the end of the day, isn’t maths just the same as reading – and really, just as straightforward. Children need encouragement, motivation and praise to build self-esteem and confidence. They need the foundations, repetition and practice…. above all… lots and lots of practice. Great parents listen to their children read every day.

We need more parents spending time talking about maths at home. And adults must remember they are role models to children – especially with maths – and as such, need to be confident with it, or certainly appear confident, in front of children. Good teachers know this and are experts at blagging when they don’t know the answer. Perhaps we need to help parents become better blaggers at maths!

4 responses to Why is it acceptable for children to say “I’m not very good at maths”?


    When we hear, for some times, people saying sentences i “i hate math…”, “i’ve never been a good math student…” or “ i’ve never had the ability to do math…”, all these words have only one reason: the way that math is (was) approach by teachers. This kind of thought is rooted in most of the adults in our days. In the 50s math teaching suffered a big change, it was being based on processual learning. So, what was important, was practice and repetition. This kind of approach lead to an interesting study near de 80s that shown that people wasn’t able to do math day life related simple tasks. By this time, some papers starts to emerge giving some relevance that a different approach to math teaching could make some diference in people day life. That diference was: compreention. One of the most important important documents release at that time was the Crockcroft Report (1982). It states a new way to look at math, and how math should be teach.
    So, learning, end enjoying, math its no (only) about “repetiton an practise”. It´s about understanding. All the children have the ability to do math, and not only the “most gifted”, like Poincaré used to say.
    There’s a three year case study made by Jo Boaler (1998) comparing two schools, were one had a processual based math teaching and the other one was based on relational math teaching. The conclusion was curious, because the children of the two schools know almost the same math and were able to solve se same “current” text book math questions. The difference emerged when it was proposed them to solve a day life problem: they need do build, and calculate the material, to a roof for a specific kind of building. The kids from the school who had a relational math approach were able to solve the problem. This students learned how to think. They were mathematical confidents that enable them to change and adapt procedures to new situations. The other kids, who maths was only processual, couldn’t find the solution.
    From Jo Boaler study: “One important conclusion that I feel able to draw from this analysis is that a traditional textbook approach that emphasizes computation, rules, and procedures, at the
    expense of depth of understanding, is disadvantageous to students, primarily because it encourages learning that is inflexible, school-bound, and of limited use.”
    Learning math its no about “repetition”. With “repetition” you’ll never understand math. You will learn how to hate math.
    To finish, some words from George Polya in a interview in 1945: “…We wish to develop all the resources of the growing child. And the part that mathematics plays is mostly about thinking. Mathematics is a good school of thinking…” and that´s as school duty, not Parent´s duty. Parent´s should spend time enjoying their kids, and not talking with them about school math curriculum.


      Hi, thanks so much for your comments and opening up the discussion! I broadly agree with your comments, although I’d say there are many more reasons for children disliking maths than just the teacher – my theme in this blog is that any adult who exhibits a dislike or fear of maths tends to transfer this to children – and children’s biggest role models when they are at primary school are their own parents. I’d also take issue with your concluding quote: every parent I know, myself included, wants their child to succeed at maths. A parent’s duty isn’t to enjoy their kids, it is to raise them to be happy, confident children that are well prepared for life as an adult. Polya was renowned for his achievements in number theory, not his parenting skills.
      I think many of the findings of the Cockcroft report still stand today 32 years on. The report was particularly critical of excessive concentration on the purely mechanical skills of arithmetic – but note ‘excessive’ – elsewhere in the report, it states that “maths requires hard work and practice”, and that solid foundations in basic numeracy are essential. There’s a distinction between excessive mechanical and necessary repetition.
      I totally agree that teachers in schools should be concentrating on using and applying maths, using maths to model, to analyse, to solve problems – what you describe as “relational math”. But children can only do this if they are numerate – and becoming numerate requires hard work and practice, and these key skills are best learned rote – you can read my thoughts on this here.
      The beauty of technology is that it can take rote out of the classroom. It allows us to do higher numbers of computations, more quickly, with instant feedback, and in a motivational way. Children learning basic facts, such as times tables, names of shapes, mathematical vocabulary etc. commit them to long-term memory much quicker this way – and understand maths much better as a result. If we can take rote out of the classroom, it will allow skilled teachers to teach children to use and apply maths in ways that will prepare them better for employment and life in general – which I hope we all agree is the ultimate goal!


    Reblogged this on The Poetry of Logical Ideas and commented:
    Interesting thoughts on why it is socially acceptable for children (and adults for that matter) to say they are not good at maths.


    Interesting thoughts about how society condones the idea that not everyone is a ‘maths person’

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