“I never did understand any maths at school.”

On meeting someone new and them discovering that my work revolves around a love of maths, here is an example of a common conversation that will then ensue:

Person: I never did understand any maths at school.

Me: Do you know the answer to 25 + 20?

Person: Yes, of course, that is 45.

Me: Do you know how to work out a 50% discount off an £80 coat?

Person: Yes, that is £40.

Me: Well your first statement is not true. You did understand some maths at school; you can add numbers and you can work with percentages. You learned it at school and can still do it!

Person: But that is just basics; I can’t do anything difficult.

Me: Define difficult.

The next thing I try to do, particularly if the person I am talking to has their child with them listening, is (a) convince them never to say this again in front of their child and (b) get them to tell me as many things as possible that they could understand in maths lessons and can still do. This works well for many people, but some are so traumatised by their experience of maths at school that they cannot be convinced that maths is really OK. Some cite horrible memories of regularly being forced to try to answer a question to which everyone but them knew the answer. Being put on the spot with no clue how to answer remains traumatic for shy people and one of the most common causes for the “I hated maths at school”-type statements.

We all try to make sure that students are engaged and involved in our lessons. There is always the danger to often go to those with their hands up for the answers, whilst knowing we are not supposed to ignore those who don’t put their hands up. One day I decided to ask my students two questions: (1) why they did not put their hands up and (2) how it made them feel if I picked on them to answer a question when their hand wasn’t up. I told them they could do this anonymously if they wished, but most chose not do it anonymously. Here are some of the answers:

Why don’t you put your hand up?

  • I don’t feel confident enough
  • People call you a swot
  • I prefer it when we all write our answers on a whiteboard and hold our answers up to show you, as then only you get to see if we are wrong
  • Some people are more competitive than me about being picked to answer
  • I can’t be bothered
  • Jack always knows the answer so I let him answer because he likes to
  • I only put my hand up if I am certain I am right
  • I am worried people will laugh at me if I get it wrong but to be fair they usually don’t because you tell them off
  • I am not always listening properly
  • I am too shy

How do you feel when I pick on you to answer a question when your hand isn’t up?

  • I will say something to make the class laugh, if I think I can get away with it
  • It is OK; I usually know the answer, but I just don’t like putting my hand up
  • Like I am going to throw up
  • It depends on the question: if it is a question with a right/wrong answer it is OK if I know the answer; if it is a question where you get to give an opinion then I don’t mind
  • I sometimes try just saying “I don’t know” and make no effort to think, but you don’t usually let me do that
  • It makes me hate myself, because I am so stupid and don’t know anything

Of course these days “hands up” is rarely the only strategy we use in our classrooms.  Studies show that only about 25% of a class generally put their hands up, and having just these students answer every question and drive the pace of the learning can fool us into thinking that everyone understands (not just the more confident/vocal).

These days it is more common to see a combination of techniques to ensure everyone is engaged in the lesson, and a culture where the most important thing is to have a go and it doesn’t matter if students are wrong; it only matters that they gave it their best shot.  Techniques more common now are things such as choosing a name at random to answer a question, writing answers on a whiteboard and holding them up, having an opportunity to discuss before answering a question, and varying questioning styles so that there is a mixture of closed and open questions.

Being picked on to answer questions is not the only reason that people are convinced they never understood anything in maths or are traumatised by the subject. Being in a bottom set, not achieving the C grade, and constant comparisons between them and people much better at maths are other reasons often quoted.

It is my mission to try to do my absolute best to eradicate the phrase “I never did understand any maths at school” from future generations, and to try to replace it with something more positive.

All the best,

Debbie Barton

Debbie Barton Debbie Barton is a teacher, examiner and maths consultant with over 20 years’ experience. She’s written a number of books including Complete Mathematics for Cambridge Secondary 1. She also worked as a Gifted and Talented trainer and is passionate about ensuring able students are challenged with exciting stimulus. 

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