THE REAL COST OF MATHS ANXIETY IN THE UK
IS PREVENTION CHEAPER THAN CURE?
“I felt very unwell and nervous.”
“My mind went blank, and I couldn’t focus when I was asked a question.”
What are these primary school pupils referring to? For many, especially teachers who regularly see these reactions first-hand, it will not come as a surprise that they are talking about how they felt in maths lessons.
Why, when you read these statements, are you able to make the link between anxiety and maths so easily? According to Dr Thomas Hunt, the lead psychologist for The Mathematics Anxiety Research Group (MARG) at the University of Derby, anyone can experience maths anxiety. In fact, to varying degrees, most adults will experience it at some point.
While this is not a new phenomenon—the academic study of maths anxiety can be traced back to as early as the 1950s, where Mary Fides Gough introduced the term “mathemaphobia” to describe the phobia-like feelings of many towards mathematics—it is becoming increasingly pressing that it is addressed. The world is becoming ever more reliant on technology, and research points to a growing maths crisis in the UK, where the level of adult numeracy is already relatively low and seemingly getting worse. According to the National Numeracy report, ‘What is the Issue?’, the proportion of adults with functional maths skills equivalent to a GCSE grade C fell from 26% to 22% over a period of eight years. In contrast, functional literacy skills are steadily increasing, with 57% of working-age adults gaining the equivalent level.
Step in Rishi Sunak with a new national programme to address what he referred to as the “tragic” level of poor numeracy skills among UK adults. £560m will certainly not be a wasted investment given the potential boost to individuals’ earnings and productivity, but is there a more cost effective way to address this issue?
It is becoming apparent that maths anxiety can begin very early when young children are learning basic number skills. Dr Dominic Petronzi, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Derby Online Learning, led research that found evidence of maths anxiety in children as young as four-years-old. It makes sense, therefore, to consider how to nip this national curse in the bud rather than wait a generation to plaster over the cracks.
What makes maths so much more stressful than other subjects?
1. First, there can be a noticeable lack of maths role models during infancy. Parents have been shown to influence their children’s perception of maths by avoiding talking about it or even mentioning the subject in a negative way, “I was never any good at maths and it didn’t do me any harm” or “we’re just not a maths family”.
2. On top of this, personal fear of failure seems to be more prevalent in mathematics than in any other subject. The fact that maths questions are so often either right or wrong makes it hard to disguise failure.
3. Then there’s the language of maths that needs to be mastered, with over 500 words expected by age five. Understanding the idea of counting on by two is not enough, children need to know how to “add”, “sum” or “plus” two. It has been shown in a study by Professor of Psychology Koleen McCrink that by nine-months-old most babies show a rudimentary understanding of addition, indicating it is not the concepts that are the tricky part.
When all these factors mix together and you throw in SATs, timed tests, negative evaluations from teachers, peers or parents and the lure of something referred to as the ‘no attempt error’—meaning that a person may reach the stage where they simply stop putting effort into providing answers in maths tasks—you get the perfect breeding ground for maths anxiety to flourish and multiply.
Clearly there is a problem, as highlighted by the fact the UK is sitting firmly in the bottom half of the OECD numeracy skills rankings, the question is: Where is the effort best invested? After the maths anxiety has affected school results and career decisions? Or in infancy where minor tweaks to parenting information and the early year teaching curriculum can prevent maths anxiety taking a hold on society at all? Infants are born with a desire to understand the world around them, a love of learning, and a determination to discover more. By showing babies maths is useful and enjoyable, a £560m adult numeracy kitty could easily and quickly become a thing of the past.