Mathematical Brain
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Naze sugaku ga tokui na hito to nigate na hito ga 
(Why are some people good, but others bad at maths?)

Mathematical Brain
Brian Butterworth
Daily Telegraph: Connected

Back to square roots... add a good teacher
and practice

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 successful accountant.''

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 Prof Butterworth.

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 understand it."

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.''

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