By Orna Herr, Communications Officer (Education) at the British Science Association


It’s everyone’s favourite day of the year on Wednesday 19 May… National Numeracy Day! Who doesn’t love maths? The M in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) - where would we be without it? (Well, STE, but that doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.)

As it turns out, a lot of British kids would quite happily be without maths. 36% of young people (aged 15-24) sometimes experience maths anxiety, feelings of panic and helplessness when faced with a mathematical problem. (20% of the UK adult population also feels this way, so if that sounds like you then don’t worry - you’re not alone.) An uneasy relationship with maths can start at a very young age; in 2019, one in five primary children did not reach the expected standards in maths and 28% of maths GCSE students scored below a level 4 (a 'C' in the previous system).

Is this because some young people are simply predestined to be good at maths, acing exams with apparent ease, and some are just not?

This is certainly an idea that’s pervasive in society. It’s socially acceptable for adults to laugh off not having great numeracy skills, in a way that is less likely if they struggled with literacy, because they’re just not a ‘maths person’. 

But it’s a myth! A maths myth. Various studies have shown that a big part of being good at maths is simple. Just believe in yourself! The work of academics such as psychologist Carol Dweck show that when it comes to maths, as with other subjects, it’s a lot to do with mindset; feeling confident that you can improve plays an enormous role in how much effort, and in turn progress, you make.

Dweck has theorised that there are two mindset: a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. A person with a fixed mindset believes intelligence is static, and so when presented with an obstacle they give up easily because they feel they are simply unable to overcome it and fear looking foolish if they try and fail at first. But a person with a growth mindset believes intelligence can be developed, and so they embrace challenges, work hard to overcome obstacles and tend to see positive results.

We’re not born with one mindset or the other - we can learn to alter our perception of ourselves and our ability to learn new skills, such as maths, at any age. Instilling these ideas in children during their school education, and encouraging them to believe in themselves and rewarding effort, can set them up with a growth mindset that can help them to succeed in school, which can then lead to successes later in life.

The school environment plays a huge role in how children perform in maths lessons. Dweck found that classes of children learning maths in classroom where there was a culture of growth mindset showed huge improvements compared to children who were not. A recent research paper by The Royal Society found that “students perceiving their classroom to be highly emotionally supportive are more likely to seek help from their teachers and peers, which consequently is related to increased maths attainment”.

So, if maths is taught in the right way, there’s no reason why children can’t succeed and take their numeracy skills into adulthood. A report by Pro Bono Economics estimated that the cost (in lower wages) of poor numeracy can be estimated to be between £460 and £742 a year per adult, so engaging with maths lessons now definitely pays off!

Of course, numeracy skills don’t only come into play in maths lessons - they’re essential in every STEM subject. The BSA’s education programme, the CREST Awards, focuses on scientific experiments and investigations, but CREST projects wouldn’t be possible without numeracy, so they can be a brilliant way to demonstrate to maths-shy students how numbers are everywhere - and how they can be fun!

‘Make a rollercoaster go faster’ is a great project for any thrill-seeking Bronze level students who loves the idea of designing their own ride. It asks them to measure the speed and acceleration of a car on a homemade rollercoaster track, and to investigate how different heights and gradients of the track affect the motion. It’s a hands-on, engaging experiment which is all about numbers!

Shampoo and hair types’ is a Silver project that might appeal to students who are thinking about a career in the beauty industry. It involves examining different hair samples under a microscope after washing to compare the results. Testing shampoo may seem a long way from a maths lessons, but they have more in common than you might think. Increased thickness, strength or brittleness all need to be recorded numerically.

Another CREST Award that relates to a creative pursuit is Compare fabric properties’, a Gold level project that asks students to test properties like the strength and thermal resistance of different fabrics. In a similar way to ‘Shampoo and hair types’, this project may not seem mathematical on the surface, but whenever results need to be recorded, numeracy skills are being used! Once results take the form of numbers they can be turned into graphs and charts to give visual representation.

Maths is all around us. Feeling confident about solving mathematical problems, in whatever form they arise in life, is hugely beneficial for young people (and all people!), and a positive growth mindset goes a long way.