Maths: Overcoming The Fear of Getting it Wrong

Maths All Around Us

Maths is all around us and as a maths teacher and enthusiast it always makes me sad that so many people have a genuine fear of “maths”.

The maths of school is an application of a subject that is in essence a language, something that can be creative and thought-provoking as well as a problem-solving tool. It underlies the whole universe and yet is sometimes so beautiful or amazing it blows us away. Think of the hexagons of honeycomb; the ebb and flow of the tide predicted by tide tables; the symmetry of a butterfly; the effect of the sun at different times of the day and year on our shadows; the directions used on satnav;  the location of pipes and wires under our streets. These are just a few; there are many more…

In my occasional blogs I hope to create a better understanding of what maths is, why it may seem forbidding for so many and plant a few seeds for thought. One of the biggest challenges many people have with maths seems to be the fear of getting it wrong.

I was teaching someone the other day and suddenly she turned to me and said “You didn’t say it was wrong. I like that…” She smiled and for the first time in a long time I reflected on my unconscious avoidance of those words in this situation. Was I just contributing further to the snowflake generation or was there something more going on?

My student knew she had not got the answer right from my response but she still felt encouraged to have another go. Why? What did I say?

In fact, at first, nothing just a long pause giving the student some thinking time. This prompted her to do some more self-reflection; talking out loud to help her thinking process. There was another similar question which we had worked through together. I asked her, “So…what did you do there at that point…?” She thought some more…and then there was that “ooh…” moment…” I know…!” and she had it. She felt she had solved the problem – which she had.

What exactly had I done? Very little except – vitally, I think – not reject something outright into which she had invested time and thought. Instead, I had acted as a bridge from a misunderstanding to a fuller understanding by giving her thinking time.   So often this is the case – a lot of the reasoning is right, but a “wrong” answer is reached and so readily discarded.

And as parents we can help nurture this process of empowerment.

Mistakes really are the stepping stones to learning. So, the question “what did you learn today?” can be rephrased as ” how many mistakes did you make today?” When they tell you with great despondency that they made “lots”, our response can be “So you must have learnt a lot! And which mistakes do you understand?” Children are usually honest and will say if they know why they made a mistake.

Where there is no understanding of why the mistake was made, this will neatly pinpoint the area to work on with your child.

Of course, this is a life lesson for us all too.

Rachel S Barker
Maths Tutor

If you would like to discuss any maths-related issues in your life, please do not hesitate to get in touch.

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