A maths problem: 5 reasons people hate maths

By Maths Doctor Tuesday, February 3, 2015

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Market research company, Ipsos 2005 study found that 4 out of 10 Americans hated maths, which, when you think about it is quite a considerable majority dedicated solely to one academic subject. If you do a quick search online for the most disliked subject at school, whichever link you chose maths will consistently rank in the number one position. And even disregarding what you read online, anecdotally most people will openly tell you maths is their least favourite subject.

So whilst it’s probably common knowledge that maths may not be the most popular subject, did you know that rather than simply disliking the subject, people are now becoming scared of it, a phenomenon aptly named Mathematical Anxiety.

According to Nuffield Foundation, Mathematical Anxiety is becoming increasingly recognised as a psychological condition, whereby the overwhelming nervous feeling can interfere the ability to cope with the subject, solve problems and interpret numbers and calculations, inside and outside of the classroom, resulting in an unhealthy relationship and avoidance of the subject progressing into adulthood.

So why then, is it that maths has the ability to cause us so much hatred and anxiety? Examining both the subject and the teaching, there are a list of reasons why learning maths is associated with such volumes of negativity.

1) No bluffing

Let's be honest, you can't really bluff maths. When put on the spot, unlike in many other subjects where you could elaborate on the point before, offer an opinion, or derive a very "creative" answer to the question at hand, when hit in the face with an impending calculus equation, unless you've done your homework, there really is no obvious solution. There aren't any crutches in maths, no assistance you can depend upon apart from your own knowledge of the subject, which, if lacking can be like staring at nothing but a jumbled mess of numbers and letters.

2) It's a different language

With maths you really have to speak the language, each equation is essentially a sentence, each algebraic letter a placeholder for something not just a meaningless value. Lots of symbols that we use instead of words and multiple working outs continuously trailing off into the distance so that you have forgotten what you are solving in the first place. Was it X or Y? Answer: Well if this equals that, then that equals this, except when this equals zero, then the rule changes to that, etc etc. Unless you have kept up with years of maths language learning throughout school years, you can easily find yourself entering a maths exam and not even being able to read the question, despite it being written in English.

3) What's the point?

One of the key issues with people really engaging with maths is that unless you actually put it into context there is no obvious point to finding the solution for X. Who cares what X is if it's nothing? Or being completely unable to relate to the problem at hand. If Frankie has 23 watermelons and loses 27% of them, how many watermelons are left? Why would you ever have this ridiculous amount of watermelons and need to calculate such a specific loss?

There is such an obvious connection between other subjects and their point, ie, PE = Fitness, French/English = Communication, Art = Creativity. The problem with maths is that we become so consumed with trying to find something like the value of X, we forget why we are trying to find it in the first place. There were often times where maths becomes devoid of any point at all, and prompts questions like "Why can't we just use a calculator?".

4) It's scary

As soon as you enter your first secondary maths lesson, the difficulty of the 12 times table from your primary years seems like a distant memory. The step up in level becomes glaringly apparent when hit in the face with topics like cube roots or quadratic equations. When you think you have mastered those it then accelerates further to Sines and Tans and circle geometry! The subject itself definitely has the potential to be terrifying and sometimes so does the teaching. Maybe the maths teacher did seem a little scarier than the others? There were a lot of occasions when a mathematical formula was being barked out to the class in a slightly intimidating manner.

5) We've been told to hate it

For many of us our negative attitude towards maths is influenced and consistently reinforced by others, passed down via friends, family or teachers inherently throughout years of our education. Peer pressure teaches you from an early age that maths is a subject you are expected to loathe, and it definitely wasn't cool to like it. Overhearing your primary school teacher use the word maths in reference to their least favourite part of their week, (probably enhanced by the general negative attitude of the class itself). Or at home, the parent that was always eager to help you practise French, or came up with great ideas for a creative writing task, yet seemed a little absent when you needed to do your maths homework. It really has been in-grained in our society to hate or be scared of maths, like standing on the right hand side of the escalator, or queuing.

But we really need to change this attitude, and make people aware that maths is actually a great subject, despite points 1) to 5), for many reasons which will form part of a later blog!