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“I do Maths for fun…..what do you do?” October 16, 2011

Posted by Editor21C in Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education, Teacher, Adult and Higher Education, Uncategorized.

from Karen McDaid

Karen McDaid reflects upon negative attitudes to mathematics which are all too common in our adult population, and on the need for new teachers to present positive messages about mathematics to the children they teach.

Recently, while attending a function, I was asked by a very charming lady what I did for a living. This is not an unusual way of initiating conversations with a new acquaintance, and for most people, it is a pleasant way of commencing a friendly discourse. However, the problem lies not in my response to the question… but in the questioner’s reaction to my response. When my new acquaintance discovered that I taught mathematics, the conversation rapidly developed a negative downturn….. ‘Oh, I hated maths at school…. I was never any good at it, just didn’t get it……  I couldn’t work out when I was ever going to use it in real life!’ My newly acquainted friend then proceeded to sympathise with my terrible plight as a teacher of the dreaded “M” word and endowed me with declarations of empathy and compassion. Unfortunately, this is an occurrence that I regularly experience and have resolved myself to accepting – that it is extraordinary to find someone who liked mathematics at school even amongst the education students that I currently teach and who will eventually be responsible for teaching and promoting mathematics to our next generations. In all honesty, I am a proud and passionate teacher, the fact that my favourite subject is mathematics is secondary, and I refuse to be embarrassed by my love for a discipline which is both pragmatic and intrinsically beautiful.

As a teacher in mathematics education I am keenly interested in the attitudes of my tertiary students (future primary school teachers) towards mathematics, mainly because it is my responsibility to encourage their commitment to learning and their success in a subject that some may feel anxious about. Each semester I begin my first lecture by asking the students to think about what their favourite subject was while they were at school; what was it about that subject that they loved? How did they feel when doing anything to do with that subject? I then ask them to discuss with the students next to them what their feelings about Mathematics are; this usually generates great murmurings around the lecture theatre, unfortunately not always positive. Hembree (1990) suggested that maths anxiety in pre-service teachers is higher than for any other subject major undertaken at university level and a more recent study conducted by Haylock (2001) concurred with these findings. Studies conducted by Bursal and Paznokas (2006) carried out with pre-service teachers who exhibited high levels of maths anxiety have shown that anxiety often transfers into the classroom, and show a link between their (in)ability to teach the subject with confidence. On the other hand the primary teachers whose attitudes were inclined more positively towards maths stated that this was due to positive teacher attitudes at the tertiary level and support and, encouragement to ask why and explore alternatives as well as realisation that mathematics can be useful and has a purpose.

I believe that personal judgments about mathematics arise from several issues. These include beliefs about the nature of mathematics; beliefs about the learning and teaching of mathematics; learning experiences as a mathematics student at school; parental attitudes towards mathematics and teacher preparation programs.  These often silent notions that have been developed over time are frequently linked with our school experiences and can guide our actions and our attitudes in a manner that can be productive or destructive. Although I’m not ancient, my own school experience was that of repetition, rote learning of tables and red ‘crosses’ or ‘ticks’ on a page full of formal algorithms. Not forgetting the individual, quiet work where speaking to another student meant you were rewarded with a hundred totally unproductive lines like ‘I must not speak in class’. It wasn’t until high school that I found my passion for mathematics. Miss Gallen in Year 11 ignited and fostered my inquisitive nature and changed my belief that mathematics is a specialised domain and only those that are clever at mathematics can succeed.

During discussions in tutorial groups students often say that that success or failure in mathematics is attributable to a person’s ability and that effort has little effect on accomplishments, when in actual fact I consider that the opposite is the case. It may be that it is a person’s perception about their mathematical abilities and not their actual ability that stops them being risk takers and learners in mathematics. I tell my students that Novak Djokovic didn’t get to be the number one tennis player in the world by watching Wimbledon; he became good because he practised and to be good at mathematics requires practise, not just question after question but practise in thinking mathematically. But no matter what I might say, unfortunately for many prospective primary school teachers their negative memory of school mathematics may have created a cycle of anxiety which can influence their attitudes towards mathematics at tertiary level. My fear is that these high levels of anxiety towards mathematics may be inadvertently passed on to their students when they begin teaching. On the other hand, teachers who exhibit a positive attitude, have good content knowledge and use sound pedagogical practices are more likely to foster a positive attitude towards mathematics in their primary school students.

As a teacher I see myself as an educational guide, a motivator, mentor and hopefully someone who can encourage our pre-service teachers to develop a positive attitude towards mathematics and mathematics teaching. I consider the role of a teacher to be an incredibly important responsibility and I firmly believe that my attitude, passion and love of mathematics can have a profound effect on the students that I teach. With this in mind, I remind myself of the lady that I met who had such a negative view of mathematics and I wonder whether any of her teachers had exhibited a positive attitude or whether they had simply taught the procedures and expected her to ‘get it’. For our future teachers, they should become ambassadors of mathematics, constantly extolling its beauty and creativity, and while I encourage them to promote it in their roles as future teachers, I must also remind myself to promote this beautiful subject with the people that I meet instead of being mildly embarrassed about my love of mathematics when in company.

References:   Bursal, M. & Paznokas, L. (2006). Mathematics anxiety and preservice elementary teachers’ confidence to teach mathematics and science. School Science and Mathematics 106(4) 173-80.   Haylock, D. (2001). Mathematics explained for primary teachers London: Paul Chapman.   Hembree, R. (1990). The nature, effects and relief of mathematics anxiety. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 21, 33-4.

Karen McDaid is a Lecturer in mathematics education in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. She teaches in our Master of Teaching (Primary) program.


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