Sunday, 26 January 2014

good at maths

How's your maths? Do you love it? Loathe it? Do you use it much?

It's acceptable in our country to say that you're no good at maths, but that is just nonsense. We use maths every day, at the shops it's pretty straight forward, but if you're looking for a new contract for your phone it gets more complicated pretty fast. A lot of people who say they're no good at maths can manage to get by quite well. Even better if someone can explain it in a straightforward way.

And yet still, in our culture, it seems to be OK to say you're no good at maths. Especially if you're female, which goes hand in hand with the idea that boys are better at maths than girls.  Let me just blow that out of the water for you. They are not. In cultures that don't see maths as hard, people do better at it. Those countries are at the forefront of technologies we use every day.

Think about how people talk about maths.  It wouldn't be so acceptable to say you couldn't read would it?

Research in America took two groups of students with equal maths ability.  One group was told that boys were better than girls at maths, whereas the other group was told that despite what they may have heard, boys and girls were just as capable.  They then sat a maths test.  The results showed that the girls did just as well as the boys, unless they were told they weren't as good.

We believe the stories we're told about our abilities, and the stories in turn limit our horizons. In Sociology this is called labelling theory, it works like this:  If you tell a child who is behaving badly that they are a bad person, two bad things happen. Firstly, you start expecting that child to behave badly, and understanding their behaviours as bad, rather than tired, or excited, etc - you limit your expectations of the child. Secondly, the child learns that they are bad, so there is no hope of being good, so they play the role they have been given. They give up on themselves.  With regard to maths, if people are told that maths is boring and hard, and something that other people can do instead, then they're going to give up.  But do you know what?  Maths isn't boring, it isn't hard, and everyone needs to be able to do it.  

This is what learning maths looks like
So let's not limit our aspirations or our horizons.  Instead of writing off maths, and saying you're no good at it, just say you're having trouble with this bit - you might need some support to get it.  Adults need to show children that maths is good, and fun, and useful. And by children I mean boys AND girls.  As I write this two of my children are on the other computer playing on Sumdog, a very user-friendly kids website which helps you learn maths while playing games.  It is fantastic.  Do you know of any other good sites?

Areas of employment that particularly use maths - Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths itself, are all well paid, and all have under-representation of women.  Let's not let that happen to the next generation.

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