The mathematics of confidence

My daughter is to have a maths test tomorrow and she said that she is ‘”dreading it”. I could have kissed and hugged my husband when he said, “why? You are good at maths”. The reason for my elation is that I have been unwittingly putting my daughter off maths by confessing that I am not very good at it. My daughter is 8 and in Year 3 at a British primary school and already she is feeling the pressure to be in the ‘top group’ and do well in tests. Such is the nature of our education system. Although we don’t apply pressure to her because she is the type to apply pressure to herself supported by a teacher who uses children’s competitiveness as motivation to try harder.

Research has shown that just by admitting that they are no good at maths, mothers unwittingly lower their daughters’ attainment – so I have scored an own goal. Why does my mathematical version of dyslexia continue to plague me and now my children!

I was flicking through a magazine and I came across an advert designed to support primary school children with maths revision. One of the cartoon characters posed a question – 64 / 8. Normally I would glance at it, my inner voice would shout ‘eurgh, numbers!’ and then I would quickly move on. I decided to attempt to work it out and came up with 7. I have no idea if this is correct, I am assuming not because I have no faith in my calculating skills. I am also confused by the criticism of our curriculum being too focused on arithmetic. To me that is maths. I didn’t know there was anything else involved, other than the long convoluted equations seen in films about maths geniuses but teaching other mathematical concepts at primary school age? I mentioned it to my mother and she didn’t get it either.

I have bought the book ‘maths for mums and dads’ to try and help me go beyond my current poor ability so that I may at least be able to support my daughter, but in reading this and hearing other commentary on modern-day mathematics teaching I feel let down by my own experience as a pupil. I wasn’t aware of this wonderful concept called ‘growth’ or ‘challenge’ mind set. Because it seemed to take me ages to work sums out, I felt a failure. Particularly when my mother would show me several different ways I could have arrived at the same answer but ‘quicker’ (thanks Mum). I have had to tell her off for doing the same thing with my daughter, because she doesn’t realise that the journey helps you to understand. That is one of the reasons why my maths is founded on shaky ground, because I missed a few of the building blocks along the way.

So when I see my daughter struggling, I encourage her to enjoy the struggle – the brain is working hard so that is a good thing. I also don’t reward her for solving something quickly, instead I suggest that the sum can’t have been a big enough challenge and to attempt something that will take longer to solve. The same applies to tests, I encourage her to enjoy solving the questions and not get frustrated if some take longer to answer.

In supporting my daughter’s mathematical confidence, I am learning to enjoy maths and not to fear it. However, having read the changes planned for the national curriculum (gulp) I don’t envy the pupils of today and tomorrow.

Now this gets political. I endured a crap Tory run state system in the 80s and thankfully had the chance to go private for secondary school. I wholeheartedly support the state system providing someone good is at the wheel. I fear we are heading back to the 80s, in which case my kids are going to need growth mind set in bucketfuls to sustain any ounce of self esteem and confidence academically.

I am blogging every day for UNICEF.

Thanks for reading.

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