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During March 2015, on Pi Day, I attended #mathsconf2015 in Birmingham.


#mathsconf2015 organised by @LaSalleEd

One of the talks was given by Danielle Bartram, who runs the useful www.missbsresources.com website. Returning home, and reading Danielle's blog, I was struck by the following paragraph on this entry of her blog:

“I can’t do maths” has become a common phrase said by many people. It has turned into a socially acceptable phrase; however, it isn’t socially acceptable to say “I can’t read”. As a country we are breeding a self-fulfilling prophecy in allowing teachers, parents, students, television shows, and friends to say the words “I can’t do maths” without challenging the belief. We are saying it is okay to be rubbish at maths and allow students and peers to see maths as unimportant.

During Danielle's talk, the following video was shown, highlighting negative attitudes towards mathematics in American culture.

I decided to see if I could spot some similar attitudes towards mathematics in Wales. I was not disappointed...

Elin Fflur is a talented singer and TV presenter, appearing on 'Heno', the Welsh equivalent of the One Show. On March 10th, 2015, she sent out the above tweet to promote an item on the show. Translated, it reads:

"I have an item on 'pi' tonight - mathematics - and my head hurts. Ha. Tune in to see if you can remember the formula!!!".


At the end of March, I was listening on a Sunday morning to Beti George's programme "Beti a'i Phobol" on BBC Radio Cymru. On this particular edition, she interviewed Gareth Ffowc Roberts, a mathematician and author. At the start of the conversation, Gareth recounted how, as a young boy, he used to catalogue the number plates of passing vehicles. Beti described this activity as being "afiach", a word which translates as follows:

Google Translate of the word "afiach"

I wonder whether Beti would have used the same word with a different guest, say Elin Fflur recounting an early memory of singing?....

During April, S4C broadcast a special episode of the comedy programme Dim Byd, spoofing the 1980s series Jabas. Whilst I am normally a big fan of this show, this particular episode disappointed, particularly as the scriptwriters fell into the stereotype of lambasting mathematics for a cheap laugh.

"But you remember nothing about the homework we have"... "Forget about school work today - the weather is far too nice to be doing some boring sums".

(Heard at 1 minute 30 seconds)

Later on during April, the ex-footballer turned pundit Owain Tudur Jones sent the following tweet after a visit to his old school.

Translated, it reads:

"Enjoyed being back at Ysgol Tryfan today after nearly 15 years away. I still don't understand why I had to do algebra?"

In November, a primary school in Pontypridd sent out the following tweet showing a school trip:

Over the summer, I had resolved to challenge any negative attitudes towards the subject, so I replied with a link to a document on the National Numeracy website about attitudes towards mathematics.

Notice that the original tweet received 11 "likes"; I wonder whether the response had been the same if the word "Maths" had been replaced by the word "Welsh" in the original tweet?

The final tweet comes from late December – nothing wrong with the article – it was the picture that upset me!

So what can be done about these negative feelings around the subject? And why should it matter? The following quote comes from a Numeracy Review on the National Numeracy website.

Poor numeracy – or everyday maths - is a big issue in the UK; arguably the biggest single education and skills issue facing the country. In 2012, the Skills for Life survey showed that around 4 out of 5 adults have a level of numeracy below the equivalent of a C at GCSE, with 49% of adults at a level expected of primary school children. Research commissioned by National Numeracy and carried out by Pro Bono Economics estimates that this results in a cost to the economy of up to £20.2 billion annually. This is 1.3 % of the UK’s GDP and costs UK employers around £3.2 billion per year.

Changing attitudes won't happen overnight. I still expect to see tweets and media items portraying a negative image of mathematics in 2016. These attitudes do need to be challenged however, so that, some day, "I can't do maths" can become as socially unacceptable to say as "I can't read".

Diweddarwyd diwethaf: Sul, 3 Ionawr 2016, 4:25 pm