Go figure: Why maths doesn’t add up for so many of us

You can change your mathematical ability by first of all changing your mindset

For many of us it’s a badge of honour to declare: “I’m terrible at maths. I just don’t have the brain for it.”

Yet, says Dr Pádraig Kirwan, head of Waterford Institute of Technology’s department of computing and mathematics, this isn’t the case in many other countries.

"It's just not an issue in places like China. But in western society there seems to be a mental block that you don't get in many Asian countries. Over there, maths is treated just like any other subject."

So how come so many of us are happy to declare our inability to do maths? Is it true that some people just don’t have the brains to do maths? Or can anyone who puts in enough hours get by?


A lot of it comes down to confidence and giving it to students, teachers and parents. If one part of that chain is weak then it is in danger in bringing it all down

Dr Kirwan suggests there may be cultural or teaching issues that lie behind some of the wider anxiety around maths.

“A lot of it comes down to confidence and giving it to students, teachers and parents. If one part of that chain is weak then it is in danger in bringing it all down. If you have a teacher that conveys a lack of confidence with maths, the students will feed off that.

“Also, if the parent is not confident in helping their child with maths that can be problematic too,” says Dr Kirwan.

Psychologist Dr Kinga Morsanyi of Queen's University Belfast says the subject has an image problem.

“Starting from parents who tell their children that they’ve always been bad at maths - and who don’t feel confident enough to help with their child’s homework - to primary school teachers who have to teach maths as well as other subjects, and they feel less confident, interested or enthusiastic about maths than other subjects,” she says.

Dr Morsanyi says in many countries, maths is taught by specialist teachers starting from early in the primary school years, but in the UK and Ireland this is often not the case.

“This means that from the start, instead of role models, children might see teachers who are not really confident in their maths knowledge and not very enthusiastic about the subject,” she says.

Maths is a cumulative subject unlike history, she adds: if a child misses some basic concepts, this will cause problems later.

“Maths might also be seen as difficult by pupils, because maths questions always have a right or wrong answer.

“Even when they go just one step wrong, and they have the wrong answer, some children might feel that they failed and give up, when they might have actually been very close to producing a correct answer,” she says.

There is also a persistent notion that girls are more likely to struggle with maths and that boys are more suited to it.

Dr Morsanyi led a team of researchers last year to see if this is borne out in reality

“Girls are less confident and feel more anxious about maths in test situations and in the classroom. These can affect measured performance both directly and indirectly,” says Dr Morsanyi.

She says anxious thoughts during exams can distract students and low self-confidence may result in an underestimation of performance. As a result, even girls with high maths ability can underestimate their chances of success. However, girls can be better than boys at some areas of maths.

“Some research shows that boys are better at spatial reasoning or that girls are better at mental arithmetic.

"However, in a recent study, we have also found no gender differences in mathematics performance in primary school children in Northern Ireland.

“This included no gender differences in average performance, and no differences in the proportion of high and low-achieving girls and boys either,” she says.

Students with a growth mindset do better academically, while also developing the sort of virtues – like perseverance and humility – that are a great help in work and life

Many experts say they key to flourishing at maths is our mindset. Believing that you will be able to reach your destination is crucial.

Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck says people tend to approach learning with one of two mindsets: growth or 'fixed.

Those with a growth mindset believe their intelligence can be developed, while a fixed mindset reflects the belief that intelligence is unchanging.

In a number of research papers, Dweck has shown that students with a growth mindset do better in the long term academically, while also developing the sort of virtues – like perseverance and humility – that are a great help in work and life.

Dr Kirwan says our focus also needs to move away from what we can change about the curriculum to how we can best support the two main drivers in a child’s education – parents and teachers.

“The English educationalist Sir Ken Robinson’s famous phrase is ‘no education system is better than its teachers.’

“What is needed is a significant investment in teachers. As a society we invest in our teachers to raise them to the status of doctors and lawyers so that it’s a career they want to go into after college” he says.

Brendan O'Sullivan, chair of the Irish Maths Teachers Association and a teacher at Davis College, Mallow, Co Cork, adds that in the meantime there are simple changes we can make to maths more approachable during the exams.

He says the lack of choice in the Leaving Cert maths exam is a cause of stress, while the timing - on Friday afternoon - is hardly ideal.

The exam itself, he argues, is very text-heavy which can be challenging for those with weak language skills.

Overall, he is struck by how many students seem to think the key to success in maths is reams of notes.

Rather, he says students should take questions, cover up solutions and attempt them from scratch - over and over again. “Studying maths is a skill that requires practice,” he says, “like playing a musical instrument or perfecting taking shots at goal.

Project Sums: ‘The kids are lapping it up’

Project Sums is a pilot programme which is offering free maths grinds to school students who are priced out of private grind schools.

Independent Senator Lynn Ruane is part of the team behind the programme which runs in Tallaght and Trinity College with plans to open a third location.

The programme provides free maths support to students who are priced out of private grind schools, which can cost €30- €50 per hour.

An Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) study in 2016 found that almost half of 17- and 18-year-olds in their Leaving Cert year were taking grinds.

Independent Senator Lynn Ruane, who is part of the team behind the SUMS programme said the response to her online callout for more volunteers has been “phenomenal.”

More than 100 young people turned up for a drop-in session at the County Library in Tallaght recently.

Project Sums co-founder Rachel O’Connor says young people can work in groups or if someone has a specific question, they can drop-in, get their question answered and then head home.

“We got a great response from the call out on social media and our volunteers are mainly student maths teachers, retired maths teachers and people working in the maths industry,” she says.

“A lot of students bring in their homework or bring in their exam papers to get prepared for the leaving cert.

“We run through the main parts of the curriculum such as algebra as that is the mainly senior cycle students who come to us but if they need help with any part of the curriculum, we help in any way we can.

“We hope to start collecting data on what the main problems students are facing with the maths curriculum,” she says.