In April, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak attacked Britain’s ‘Anti-maths mindset.’ But the proposed ‘antidote’ won’t solve the real problem plaguing so many students.

An ‘Anti-Maths Mindset’ Has a Name

In recent years, GCSE students have produced a lower range of results for maths than English. In 2022, the number of candidates passing comfortably (minimum 5/C grade) was 61.1 per cent for English language and 56.6 per cent (down from 59.1 in 2021) for maths. The trend of maths lagging behind English continues into retakes. Despite an overall fall in the pass rate for 2022 in both subjects, the number of students achieving a 4/C (basic pass) when resitting English language was 28.4 per cent and 20.1 per cent for maths. That’s less than a quarter of maths resits achieving a pass despite familiarity with the material and having had it explained again (And again. And yet again). This brings us to the real common denominator, and it’s not an ‘anti-maths mindset.’

For some of us, no matter how many times a mathematical formula is explained the brain just cannot digest the information to retain the facts. Each explanation feels like starting from scratch; there is no recollection or logical thread. Having ‘got the hang’ of a theorem, the sequential steps of the method dissolve almost instantly. The synaptic connection holding things breaks when the mind loses focus.

After scoring full marks on a fractions homework, my elated teacher asked me to ‘show my workings’ to the group. Staring pathetically at the sheet, I recognised only my handwriting and nothing more.  Had I inexplicably channelled the spirit of Pythagoras or some other mathematician? Holding the now alien assignment sheet, my brain only saw the residual specks of nail glitter. I recalled nothing of the method and am certain that everyone thought I had cheated.

This amnesia-like phenomenon is better known as Dyscalculia. Dyscalculia is often called numeral dyslexia or number blindness and affects approximately 5-10 per cent of the population, with males and females experiencing it in equal measure. As well as habitually reversing numbers (writing ‘24’ as ‘42’, for example), common hallmarks include a general difficulty with grasping mathematical concepts. For instance, the third hand on a clock known as the second hand refers to the smallest unit of time. But such ideas confuse numeral dyslexics because the brain is neurodivergent and works differently than expected. Take the concept of a fraction, thought of as an entity. For dyscalculics, a fraction will seem as the very absence of anything rather than the presence of something. Confusion between the numbers 9 and 1 recurs because 9 is 1 away from 10, and 1 is 9 away from 10. I remember being taught that ‘6 goes into 36’ and arguing the reverse: that ‘36 goes into 6.’ I meant that 36 is divisible by 6, but lacked the vocabulary to explain my point. Hopefully, you get the drift.

The Birth of Numeracy

Whether mathematics was invented or discovered has been hotly debated since time immemorial. The Fibonacci sequence has been ‘found’ to be omnipresent in nature. Apparently, everything from ‘sunflower seeds and petal arrangements to the structure of bronchi in the lungs’ follows the well-known numerical rule of adding the previous two numbers to get to the next one. However, like any scriptures or codes, the symbols used to communicate maths are certainly man-made.

Negative numbers appeared  — that is, their writing system was devised — in China in 200 BCE. The zero sign was first used in India in 628 CE. And Algebra, known as a mathematical language, was first used in Persia in 820 CE. Later mathematicians continued to explore mathematical concepts. In 1706, Anglesey-born William Jones used the Greek letter π in its current form. The $ sign, originally used in Philadelphia, was first printed in 1797.

From game development to engineering, some form of mathematics is used in multiple social spheres. The fact that 5-10 per cent of us cannot grasp its basic concepts is a problem not just for those struggling with dyscalculia but for society at large. A better understanding of the methods needed to help those with learning difficulties might have more of an effect than force-feeding numeracy to those who cannot digest it by traditional means.

Understanding Number Blindness

Being a close cousin of dyslexia, if there is one thing that dyscalculics struggle with, it’s symbols. Is ‘X’ a percentage (%) or a division (÷) sign? When observing a repeated number, it can be hard to tell how many times it has occurred. Even though it’s ‘888,’ ‘888’ will look like ‘88’ or ‘8888’ and ‘- -1’ merges into ‘-1.’ But numbers are not the only thing a numeral dyslexic’s mind reverses. Analogue clock readings and the ‘greater than’ and ‘less than’ signs often get the topsy-turvy treatment. After a week out of London, the underground map looked the wrong way around owing to how my brain visually preserved it.

Number blindness has been linked to having a mother with an underactive thyroid or hypothyroidism. The condition is recorded as affecting 15 women in every 1,000, but some doctors argue that the actual number may be ‘much higher.’ This may well explain why over 8 million UK adults have numeracy skills below those expected of a 9-year-old. The worldwide ‘suboptimal’ iodine intake is paving the way for more women with hypothyroidism and resultant dyscalculic children.

Mindsets are not innately closed to maths. Mathematical systems, algorithms and their man-made representations are incompatible with some people’s ‘mindus operandi.’ Whether maths is natural or nurtured, those whose brains reverse numbers and symbols will always experience learning difficulties if the teaching method is not customised.

The Prime Minister’s optimistic plan for Maths to 18 translates to classes for all students of all abilities until that age. Like many teachers, Rishi Sunak has confused a legitimate learning difficulty with disinterest and inattentiveness. Unless the idea is to introduce additional hours of non-comprehension, the proposed ‘maths to 18’ will serve no purpose for those it is aimed at.

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