Back to square roots... add a good teacher
by Roger Highfield
The Daily Telegraph: 3rd September, 2003.
Why can some people do mathematics as easily as breathing, while
others dread working out a simple percentage? "Many people are
frightened of maths. Some almost physically so. They start sweating
at the very thought," said Carol Vorderman, who routinely encounters
maths phobia in her efforts to improve numeracy.
One phobic is Lord Puttnam, chairman of Nesta and former film producer,
who vividly recalls returning home, as an eight-year-old, from his north
London Primary School "with red weals on the back of my legs".
His teacher, frustrated by his poor written exams, "decided that I was
being deliberately obdurate, and her frustration at what she saw as my
defiance spilled over into her slapping the back of my legs (hard).
"Unsurprisingly I developed a passionate hatred for all things maths. Only
in the past few years have I discovered that there is nothing particularly
unusual in the problems I was having. Better still, I've learnt that the
symptoms tend to be found in children with very high IQs. Why hadn't
anyone told Miss Fletcher that? I might have ended my career as a
Practice makes perfect, according to Vorderman, a view backed by Prof
Brian Butterworth of University College London, author of The Mathematical
Brain, who argues that virtually all of us possess a "number module" wired
into our brains. The implication of his research is that, with the
exception of unfortunate individuals with damaged brains, we could all
brush up our maths skills to match those of Carol Vorderman.
"When you listen to me talk, interpreting what I say is a much more
difficult skill than extracting square roots, which is trivial by
comparison. It is just that we have had much more practice at it," says
But for numeracy to improve, we need decent teachers, according to
Vorderman, who believes that the current educational system is "not
working at all" and that there is a downward trend in exam standards.
"The biggest disaster is how the number of people coming through to teach
maths are not maths
Maths is one of those subjects where to teach it well, you have to
Variations in the quality of maths teaching are responsible for one of the
most enduring maths myths - one that has probably enhanced Vorderman's
image - that women are not as good at manipulating numbers as men. Wrong,
according to Prof Butterworth.
Decades ago, girls, unlike boys, tended to be taught by non-specialist
teachers. As a consequence of their better teaching, the boys did better
but today girls are on top, said Prof Butterworth, if the latest GCSE
maths results are anything to go by.
A study he has conducted on the reaction times of 18,000 people who have
passed through a science centre, Explore-at-Bristol, shows that women are
superior when it comes to a very basic numerical skill - estimating the
numbers of dots up to three. "Women are slightly faster," he said. "For
more than three dots, they are the same.''