As well as attending the Hay Literary Festival, I’ve been involved with a number of interviews and podcasts over the last couple of weeks relating to the publication of my book Not Just for the Boys: Why we need more women in science. I’ve been asked essentially the same question a couple of times, one I haven’t had posed before: if a parent was themselves no good at maths, what should they say if their own child is struggling? At Hay, this question arose because I expressed frustration when mothers give off the message to their daughters that it’s OK to be no good at maths because they never had been. This gave rise to the challenge of what should a mum who herself couldn’t do maths say to her 10-year-old child.
On Radio Cambridgeshire, when I’d had a bit longer to think about this but more or less the same question was put to me, I said that it ought to be possible to differentiate between any individual not themselves being good at a subject (any subject, not just maths) and it intrinsically being difficult. Although I didn’t say this on air, I think this is where cultivating a growth mindset – as opposed to a fixed mindset (terms introduced by Carol Dweck) – may be helpful. The message that a child who is struggling has no hope of improving would tally with the latter categorisation, but giving them a belief that with work and attention they could certainly get better at the subject aligns with the former. Practice makes perfect. Maybe they will never be a budding mathematician, but that is rather different from being enumerate and closing their mind off to the idea that maths can be both useful and fun in their daily life.
So many of the attitudes pupils have to different subjects will be driven by the messages they receive from teachers, parents and the whole spectrum of the media. Tell a child they are rubbish at something – as my French teacher did regarding my accent at the end of a single year of learning French – and they may give up. I know in my case I simply stopped trying to improve how I spoke, despite the fact I was perfectly competent at written French. I remember the conversation vividly, despite it being more than half a century ago. How many children up and down the land are put off arithmetic and later maths because of an unthinking sentence or two, possibly even one that was well-intentioned.
At Hay I encouraged the mother to work with her child, both to help the daughter but possibly also rebuild her own confidence. That is something that would be harder to do with an older child for most parents who had previously struggled, let alone by A Level, but still they can admit their own failings without wishing the same on their children. The BBC interviewer tried to draw me out further, describing a situation when the parent is feeling grumpy and pressed for time (a not infrequent state of mind for many a parent after all), but that really shouldn’t need to change the basic message a parent can give: maths is important, can be fun and there is no need for you to be bad at it just because I was.
Clearly how the question should be addressed will depend on the age of the child, but almost at any age a schoolchild is going to have to get to grips with money (perhaps less obviously so now so much is paid for virtually) so that is probably a good place to start: be it pocket money or, at a later age, how compound interest impacts on the mortgage payments and how important it is to be able to budget. The kitchen is another place where everything from fractions to weights come into play. But at any age it ought to be possible to combine the messages that maths is useful and it can be fun to play around with numbers, even while admitting that the parent found and finds it non-straightforward. Children do know their parents aren’t perfect and probably are capable of working out, from quite an early age, that they often live by the ‘do what I say not what I do’ motto.
The trouble is maths is one of those subjects where intrinsic brilliance is assumed to be needed by far too many people. I’ve written previously about the links that have been established between the numbers of women pursuing PhDs in a particular subject (both STEM and non-STEM) and how people consider that subject in terms of this intrinsic brilliance. Physics, philosophy and economics all fit into this category of few women alongside an assumption that brilliance is needed for success in them, as well as maths. I discussed the topic with my Churchill College colleague Diane Coyle in a podcast earlier this year, and she and I will be joining forces to continue the dialogue with Tabitha Goldstaub at an event in Cambridge this coming November.
The message that certain subjects are inherently more difficult than others is one that baffles me. We each have different skills and interests, driven by a multitude of factors of which we are in general unaware. If maths seems a painful black box, it may be because of how it has been taught rather than because of an intrinsic difficulty or personal stupidity. Some children will cope well with rote learning – which was how I was taught my times tables, a method which certainly enabled them to be firmly embedded in my brain – but others need to understand what is going on before their memory will take over. No one regards reading as requiring brilliance, but some children fare better under a system of phonics than others (and this is an approach that appears to go in and out of fashion in English schools). Although most people become fluent readers, a depressingly high number remain functionally illiterate because they never gained confidence in the basics for whatever reason. Yet a politician will not be standing up saying it’s OK not to be able to read.
Other cultures pay different levels of attention to numeracy. Somehow, our country remains stuck in a mindset where being bad at maths is something to laugh about rather than weep, yet – as clearly our current Prime Minister understands – being comfortable with numbers matters ever more in 21st century life.