What I learned by being a bit crap at maths

I can never identify with people who say they ‘hated’ maths in school. I never hated it. I think I sort of liked it.

I <3 math

But, I would do all the calculations and still get it wrong. I would feel like I understood the method, only to get turned around while using it. I was getting everything right but I had no confidence because it was taking me extraordinary brain power to get there. I was in the top set but I was working really slowly.

The breakthrough came when I had to learn how to do factorisation by myself. I had drama club that night, so I had to take my homework with me. I sat on the floor outside the rehearsal room, listening for my cues and wrestling with the numbers. It was there that it all fell into place. I became a factorisation fiend and even helped others.

All I needed to do, it seemed, was figure out the trick of each of the methods and just hold my nerve when it came to the final figuring out with numbers. I found out that I loved algebra and hated calculations. When we got onto geometry, I would complete exercise after exercise like Sherlock going after his perps.

I had the shock of my life when I had my mock GCSE* exam. I got a D. I was absolutely petrified. In the UK, if you get less than a C in the real exam, it’s like you wasted your time. It limits the A levels* you can do, it can even limit your career long after you get a degree. (Why did they have grades below a C then?)

So, I went to my teacher and handed her a list of topics I didn’t feel strong on that I’d cribbed from an O level* revision book my mum had got at a car boot sale. She went down the list and told me which ones were not on the exam. I think she even handed me a syllabus. I asked her for extra help with the remaining topics. She did not want to spend time on extra help.

Her offer was this: she had files and files of exercise sheets she had put together back in the day. She had corresponding files with the answers. I could take sheets home and then grade them myself.

Cue a training montage of hours and hours at my desk. I had a revision book that was geared to the GCSE exam but it was full of whacky jokes and pally asides and it got on my nerves. I distinctly remember scribbling out one joke with pencil so hard that it made a dent in the paper. I would practice the method. Cover up the method. Practice some more. I had her syllabus and covered it in colours coded for how confident I was. Ticking off as I went.

Most of the methods were like a recipe and once you learned the steps, you didn’t have to think about what it meant and I stopped getting turned around and dizzy.

I worked on her worksheets. Hours and hours of exercises, then several minutes at the start of her class grading myself on it.

And I levelled up. I got an A in that exam.

What I learned from being a bit crap at maths was that school maths is like weightlifting.   There isn’t any bad-at-maths that cannot be changed with training. The training is boring. Oh my god, lifting up dumbbells in reps and sets is exactly the same as working on all the exercises on a worksheet for finding the standard deviation. But every boring repetition makes you stronger.

I also learned that there’s a difference between arithmetic and maths. For years, being good-at-maths meant you knew your times tables and could do calculations in your head. I never got good at that. I am still terrible at that. But I can do things with tensor calculus that would make a mathematician blush. I can play statistical mechanics like a harp. Nowadays, I use this facility with mathematics regularly only in the realms of analysing school statistics.

What I learned from being a bit crap at maths was how to help students who are a bit crap at maths. They think that you get stamped at birth with it. You are either going to be good at maths or not. And they think that being crap at arithmetic means you’ll never ‘get’ maths. And so for years I have told them it is like working out. Boring, maybe, but necessary. When they say they can’t do something, I tell them they can’t do something *yet*.

And now people are waking up to this idea of ‘growth mindset’ due to Carol Dweck’s research into the phenomenon.

But it makes me wonder. As recruitment drives for teachers look for the ‘best’ graduates with the highest scores and set entry requirements that require the highest achievement back when the applicant was 16, as well as in their degree at 21. As politicians talk about having the ‘best’ teach our students.

Shouldn’t we also have people who were a bit crap at subjects when they were teenagers and learned how to overcome those difficulties? Shouldn’t we have people with mediocre scores who have taken that experience and learned how people learn?

Not that people with fantastic grades didn’t go through all this, necessarily. But we all knew someone at school or college or university who was able to skip the lessons and still do fantastically well in the exam due to the luck of having natural talent. What are they going to be able to say to an 11 year old about how to improve and should we be courting them to the exclusion of other types of potential teacher?

  • *GCSE: General Certificate in Education, an exam taken at 16 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in each of the students’ subjects.
  • A Level: Advanced Level: an exam taken at 18 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Usually in no more than 5 subjects.
  • O Level: Ordinary Level: the exam the GCSE replaced when it was phased out in the mid-70s.

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