Fear Factor - ways to remove negative attitudes in maths learners, with Dr Ems Lord, NRICH

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Q: What are some of the underlying causes or factors that contribute to maths anxiety in students in your opinion? 

For teachers, a key part of our roles is sharing our love for our subject and inspiring the new generation, yet we’re faced with many students struggling with maths anxiety. Although causes vary from student to student, there do seem to be some common trends. 

Key considerations include attitudes towards maths at home, in the classroom and on social media. For example, how do their teachers and families respond to making mistakes in maths? It’s also important to consider the mathematical experiences of students at home and in the classroom; is the focus on numbers and recall or exploration and discovery?

Q: Are there any proven techniques for reframing negative attitudes towards maths and promoting a positive mindset among learners?

Research has shown that encouraging a classroom culture where exploration and discovery are valued, where testing is not the be-all and end-all, and where it’s OK to make mistakes and learn from them, can help develop a positive mindset towards maths. 

A great example is ‘The Elephant in the Classroom’ where Jo Boaler (leading educator and researcher) recalls her experiences comparing the teaching and learning outcomes for students following different maths curricula. 

Jo’s work highlights the benefits of being explicit about the real-life applications of maths, avoiding a regime where everything is either right or wrong, and developing a classroom ethos where it’s safe to make mistakes and learn from others. We should not undervalue this approach if we really want to promote positive mindsets and resilience.

Q: How can educators and policymakers work together to create an environment that minimises maths anxiety and promotes positive attitudes towards maths? 

We need to look at both the curriculum and its assessment. We cannot treat them individually and too many teachers currently feel that they must ‘teach to the test’ but this approach can create negative experiences for too many students. 

If we want students to make strong connections between maths and other subjects - valuing both its applications and its importance for their future economic and social lives - we must rethink the way we organise our lessons and our testing regime. 

Maths lessons can come alive for many students when they are combined with other subjects they enjoy, such as sports or science. A great example is NRICH's Olympic Records activity which brings together maths and sports in a highly engaging context for secondary students. 

If schools were encouraged to adopt cross-curricular planning, then these links could help engage disaffected students and enable them to better understand the value of learning maths. 

Adopting a cross-curricular approach could also enable schools to embrace alternative, less stressful approaches towards assessment, such as recognising students’ achievements in the classroom as well as the exam hall.

Pearson’s Power of Maths campaign works to ensure that everyone can engage with maths and what it can do. Whether it's tackling issues facing maths education or promoting maths positivity, we're focused on working alongside leading thinkers and organisations to help build a number-confident nation. 

Read our Guide to Tackling Maths Anxiety full of practical tips, guidance and reflections for every age and stage and our quick read highlighting some key tools to support maths-anxious learners. 

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Dr Ems Lord
About the author 

Dr Ems Lord is the Director of NRICH, the multiple award-winning maths outreach project based at the Faculty of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge and is a valued member of the Power of Maths community

Ems holds a Research Fellowship in the Sciences at Clare Hall College, University of Cambridge, and she is the Chair of The Mathematical Association (having previously been President). Ems is a fellow of The Institute of Mathematics and its Applications and a Founding Fellow of the Chartered College of Teachers as well as being a regular contributor to the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Teaching Profession and a member of the Joint Mathematical Council. 

Ems has taught mathematics across the key stages, from Early Years to A Level Further Mathematics, and has worked in a variety of settings including a hospital school. Her previous roles include supporting schools as a Leading Mathematics Teacher, local authority consultant and as a Chartered Mathematics Teacher. Ems led one of the largest Masters-level Mathematics Specialist Teacher (MaST) programmes and has taught mathematics education on both BEd and PGCE teacher programmes, and now supervises Masters students.