“I can’t do it” – Words that every teacher will hear

I was working with a class, as part of my teacher training, that was doing an assessment the other day and the immortal words were uttered.

“I can’t do it.”

This is a phrase that I hear so much as a trainee maths teacher and as I had very little to do during this assessment lesson I got thinking. Why do you hear this so much in a maths classroom and I think I started to get on to something. Well, at least I would like to think that I started to make some progress, though this is nowhere near the level of a university dissertation which I imagine would be a very viable topic for such a thing.

So what did I think about it? I think that it might stem from the idea that maths and sciences are very factual, whereas arts and humanities are more open to interpretation. From a young age we are taught the idea that in sciences and mathematics there are the answers and the answer is right or wrong. For example, 2 + 3 = 5 (in the decimal number system, the system that we all use every day), whereas your interpretation of how the magic school bus goes about its crazy adventures is largely opinion based; one person may make some observations, but someone else may make completely different observations, both of which may be right. But as I said, in mathematics, you are right or wrong.

This will undoubtedly cause some insecurities in the minds of a young student. Fear, for one, will cause them to be afraid to answer questions, on fear of getting it wrong and thus they will not get as much practice in mathematics as they may in English, where you’re never “wrong” and everything is down to interpretation. Generations of fear have led to one of the many stigma that is now associated with mathematics: mathematics is difficult and complicated. Mathematics is very, very simple at the basic level, much like English, and is arguably easier even at the highest levels of study. Working out what a Victorian era author is trying to put across in his or her work of fiction is will never be as accurate as the solution to a question on complex numbers. People may argue, again, that the difference between the two is unfair as one is largely interpretation and one follows a set of rules, but the truth of the matter is that most marks in exam papers are for your working out, not the actual answer.

As an aspiring writer on a mathematics teacher training course, I would like to think that I have a fairly valid opinion on the differences and similarities between English and mathematics, though this is by no means a hard fact, set in stone and immortalised in the annals of history, however I believe that there is some truth to the next statement: writing fiction follows rules just the same as mathematics does. Poorly done mathematics is like the majority of the drivel on fanfiction.net, only less laughable. Poorly done mathematics implies that the person is trying their best, but I’ve found that when looking upon poorly done mathematics I laugh a lot less than I do when reading badly written fan fiction (some is good…). Poorly done mathematics can be remedied far easier than poorly written fan fiction. I would go as far as to liken it to incorrectly done mathematics as well, as poor fiction is, I would argue, fiction done wrong. In both cases you can help people get better through constructive criticism, which I have had plenty of thanks to the lovely friends who read my work and then tell me where to improve; you guys are the best! However, when it comes to incorrectly done mathematics, people seem far more receptive to the constructive criticism needed to improve, as long as they do not fall into a pit of “I can’t do it” despair, whereas practitioners of the arts are far less receptive to such and, at least from what I’ve seen, can take constructive criticism as a personal attack because obviously their work is perfection and they are the next Shakespeare or something. This, one would think, would counter-act the fear and stigma surrounding mathematics and it does to some extent, at least at the higher levels; though even at school level I have found that students are willing to listen as I try to explain things to them.

However, the thoughts that mathematics is complex and only smart people can do it has also led to another form of stigma: the “uncool” stigma. I’m sure that I do not need to go into details about this, as we all know that at school the mathematics geeks are largely surrounded by the unwashed, nerdy perception as opposed to the gloriously attractive and amazing P.E sports team or art crowd (I’m not bitter. No, I’m really not…). Recent advances in our culture have helped combat this, with shows such as the Big bang Theory showcasing nerd culture as entertaining and fun as opposed to smelly and anti-social (I mean, now we even have hipsters trying to pretend that they’re nerds, which is super adorable. It’s like me pretending to be a sports fan. Ha!). But at the younger levels such interpretations aren’t around as much, with sports personalities and air-head celebrities being role-models as opposed to political leaders (Churchill was one of mine. As well as Thatcher (the author was brutally murdered by angry readers shortly after writing this)), historical idols (Queen Elizabeth I) or at least classical authors (Charlotte Brontë for me). Being the smart child in the class makes you a pariah, a plebeian among the footballer-worshipping masters. Well, do you know what’s I find really “uncool” as an adult in a developed country? Being uneducated in a place where you have all the opportunities to get a good education, such as in England.

However, this is in itself grounds for a giant essay, which I do not want to get into here. This is just a brief look at my views and opinions on why mathematics is perceived as difficult and scary by students, as opposed to at the very least doable. So, to summarise:

Fear of being incorrect: well, do you know one really amazing way to learn? Making mistakes and learning from them. Do you know what’s even better? When you have ample opportunities to make these mistakes without it costing you anything but time that is already there for exactly that purpose (school).

Perceived difficulty due to facts as opposed to opinions: mathematics is what you make of it. Most marks are made through working out the answer, as opposed to the answer itself being correct. If you go about a mathematical problem in an appropriate way, you are as correct as a person who interprets what they believe an author is trying to get across in their fiction (and don’t even get me started on historical source accuracy!).

Uncool mathematics and “clever subjects”: oh please. Do I really have to say how this is ridiculous? The idea that being an achiever is uncool? Just… What? Since when was success uncool? Yes, it really is that silly.

I am going to try and dissolve some of these notions through my own teaching career, but how much can one person do, eh? Well, at least maybe, just maybe, I can influence a few people to not view mathematics as scary or “uncool”. But who knows? I’m just a trainee, after all, with very little experience thus far.