Maths Meltdown

If I donated a pound to charity for every time I said that I couldn’t do maths, I’d be broke. Yet it seems to be a reflex when I’m presented with what should be simple problems and all too often I find myself in a panic and shy away.

Boasting about not being able to do maths came up at the Voice of the Future talks with the question being posed by a young girl from a local high school. The question she posed was this; why is it still acceptable to boast that you can’t do maths when saying that you can’t read or write is seen as a social taboo?

Until now I’d never thought of myself as boasting. Now I can hear the tone of my voice when I’m talking about my lack of maths skills is nonchalant and I often accompany it with a little laugh to show how little I mind. Sometimes though, I get into a bit of a flap. This happened when a very helpful PhD student was explaining how to convert stock concentrations of antibiotics into working concentrations by adding varying amounts of water. The concept was simple and involved one easy equation which was no more complicated than anything I’d seen in A level maths! Despite this though, I could sense a rising wave of panic and the words that she was using to explain the solution washed over my head.

I think this is my inability to judge how complex an issue is and my need to learn maths in my own time. When I’m trying to decipher something, I have to understand it inside out and this can’t always be achieved in a 10 minute explanation. I was lucky that in this situation, the PhD student took the time to prepare me a work sheet so that I could practice with different examples! I was touched by the effort she had gone to so that I could get past the initial wall I’d built up around the problem!

At the Voice of the Future, the problem was proposed to be tackled by changing people’s perceptions of maths as something important and the feeling of not being able to it as something that you can work on instead of something that you need to get over. The latter part I think is a fundamental change that needs to be made because it’s all too easy for a teacher to dismiss a pupil who complains that they can’t do something. Saying that, I have never been a teacher and so I don’t know how such pupils are dealt with.

The second solution to the problem was of course to plough money into maths teachers, giving them more and better rewards for successfully getting maths pupils through their exams. Although this is a good idea I think that it is a bit of a quick fix. I know that teaching is not a profession to take lightly, I’m sure that I wouldn’t have the patience to teach a bunch of rowdy teenagers or primary school children who have been brought up to view maths from a distance. This could then mean that the parents are to blame, but let’s not point fingers; if a parent has never had support with any of their maths through school then how can they pass on enthusiasm for this subject.

Hopefully the movement towards more engaging teaching will create a new generation of budding mathematicians who have been inspired throughout their whole maths journey! I know that the place where I lost my love for maths was in college. All throughout secondary school I built up a love for maths that I thought couldn’t be shattered. How wrong I was. I’m not going to lie when I say that my maths classes in college were soul destroying! I felt that at AS level we were thrown into a matrix of pure maths that was a tangle of concepts which kept matting instead of being smoothed out. And that was just the start; maths at A level was like trying to light wet matches in utter darkness but I needed it to go to university! My teachers were supportive but it was at this point in my life that I began to get lazy with maths and only do it if I absolutely had to, i.e. for classes and exams. I got through and came out with a good result but I know that if I hadn’t been so uncaring of the subject that I would have done so much better!

I’m sad that I lost my love for maths but now I’ve realised how much of a wall I’ve built up I can start to knock it down. I’m not saying that I will do maths for fun in my spare time, that would be going a bit far, but I will make a conscious effort to try harder to solve problems instead of saying I can’t do it or letting someone else work it out for me.

If you want to hear more about the Voice of the Future event you can take a trip to the SfAM MicrobeBlog.

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