Creative maths – a first step to addressing maths anxiety

by Lucy Davis, CEO of Maths on Toast, a Maths Week London Partner

Maths anxiety may be a phrase you have only heard about recently – or perhaps not at all – but it is an emotion that many people can identify with and is present in classrooms and through into adulthood across the UK.

Have you ever felt anxious when faced with checking figures or sheer panic when asked for the answer to a calculation on the spot? What about when your child asks you for help with their maths homework and you freeze? Maths anxiety is defined as ‘a debilitating emotional reaction to maths’ (Nuffield Foundation, 2013). For some, ‘the anticipation of doing maths prompts a similar brain reaction as when they experience pain’ (Sian Beilock, 2015). (1)

At Maths on Toast – the family maths charity – we recognise the importance of exploring the emotional relationship with maths, and how early negative experiences can have a huge impact on people’s attitude and confidence with maths for life. According to research from National Numeracy in 2015, 30% of adults wrongly assumed that maths is a skill you are born with rather than a skill that can be learnt (2) and recent research from the University of Cambridge highlights that maths anxiety is causing children as young as six to feel fear, rage and despair.

Maths anxiety can cause poor performance which in turn increases the anxiety. The research shows that the attitude of adults towards maths highly affects children and early intervention is key to breaking the vicious circle. (3) 

“maths anxiety is causing children as young as six to feel fear, rage and despair”
A recent trend in the primary maths curriculum is to require children to tackle maths concepts at ever younger ages and there is a strong emphasis on rote learning. Memorising times tables may give a correct answer, but this may come at the expense of maths mastery and number sense – a deeper understanding of the relationship between the numbers and how an answer is reached – and the value of exploration and using multiple methods may be side-lined.

Instant recall of maths facts can be incredibly stressful to many children (and adults) and some believe that this emphasis on ‘performance mathematics’ can be at the root of maths anxiety. Jo Boaler, Professor of Mathematics Education at Stanford University believes, ‘When people say that maths makes them feel uneasy it seems likely they have suffered through the performance version of mathematics.’

Maths on Toast’s mission is to show children and their families that maths can be creative family fun. We do this by presenting opportunities to explore a broad range of mathematical concepts and look for maths in everyday life.

Maths is an incredibly wide-ranging discipline. We believe there is a type of maths for everyone and just because you struggled with quick fire times tables or mental arithmetic, doesn’t mean maths isn’t for you.

Our activities can come as a surprise to many and we often hear comments such as ‘I didn’t know this was maths’ and ‘I never knew maths could be such fun’.

But how can creative maths help counter maths anxiety? How does building a huge Sierpinski triangle crafted from straws help people deal with maths anxiety and poor numeracy; or the challenge to build a structure that will hold 1kg in weight – using only toothpicks and midget gems?

Through fun, creative, hands-on maths activities, people learn how to enjoy maths and thus the opportunity is created to take the first step towards challenging the negative beliefs and replacing them with positive memories and a can-do attitude towards maths. Our resources encourage ‘maths resilience’ – reinforcing the importance of making mistakes, learning from them and building confidence to tackle challenges, even if you don’t get it right first time.

The founder of Maths on Toast studied mathematics at Cambridge University. Yet she talks of her fear of quick-fire times tables as a child and the importance of understanding it’s ok to take time to work things out.

The Maths on Toast approach is to nurture the mathematical curiosity of all learners such that everyone has the confidence to ask questions and offer their own ideas – without fear of ‘not being quite right’.

To celebrate this inaugural Maths Week London, let’s all make the commitment to showing that maths really is for everyone and let’s offer the time, space and opportunity for children and their families to explore and discover how.

To get started, why not check out Maths on Toast Bites? Launching on 16th May, Bites is a series of 5 short ‘how-to’ films demonstrating creative maths ideas to try at home, at school or in a community setting.

Get your teeth into them here.