Ever since my early teenage years, I’ve harboured a secret fear. A fear that I know to be completely irrational in nature. I’m also pretty certain I’m not the only one with this fear. If you’re wondering what it is, well, it’s maths. I can’t tell you exactly when my anxiety about maths started, but I think I was about 11.
Prior to this, I don’t have any bad memories relating to the subject. At some stage, I lost confidence in my ability to ‘do’ maths. This was only compounded at secondary school when I was moved to the dreaded bottom set. This was a place for all the lost causes, and it showed. No one thought they would do well in their exams, and as such, behaviour in the lessons was poor. A lack of confidence in ourselves meant that we didn’t want to try. We all believed that to try, and fail, was an admission of our inability to grasp ideas which others found so ‘easy’.
The outcome was clear to see, looking back on it now. Of the 15 or so students in the class, the majority achieved a C grade at GCSE maths, myself included (I’m not saying that to get a C grade isn’t an achievement. It’s just that I know that we were all capable of so much more had we believed in ourselves, or at the very least, to have risked trying!).
The reason I mention all of this is that I’ve had to confront my fear. Having recently started my Primary PGCE, I’ve been forced to accept that maths is to become a part of my life. I can no longer pretend it doesn’t exist. Previously this would have been a cause for concern. How can I, someone who dislikes maths so much, possibly teach maths! I said previously because recently two things have happened to me, which have changed my outlook.
The first change happened after I read ‘Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential’ by Carol Dweck. When I first heard of this book I dismissed the idea of reading it. I assumed it would be some stereotypical self-help book, which didn’t appeal. However, after reading some positive comments on twitter I thought I would give it a chance. I’m glad I did. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about what it says (you should really read it to get the most out of it), but I will give a brief outline.
The main message I took from Dweck’s writing, is that your ability is not set in stone. It is up to us whether we can grow and change, or stay the same (A growth mindset or a fixed mindset). A growth mindset sees setback and failures as opportunities. Mistakes, failures or an inability to do something doesn’t define you. Rather, it gives you a foundation to build upon (As an aside, I strongly believe this mentality needs to be instilled in our schools from an early age, but I’ll save that for another time). This might all seem like common sense, but for me, it was something I hadn’t wanted to accept. By accepting that I wasn’t the best at maths, but with some hard work I could improve, was a turning point for me.
The second change in my outlook to maths happened during a seminar. I had always thought of a teacher as a font of knowledge. They must hold all the answers or why else would they be there. Needless to say that this idea of a teacher, led to those of us less confident in our mathematical ability, to want to hide. It was at this point that we happened to discuss the concept of a teacher as the ‘facilitator’. A good subject knowledge is still important to be an effective educator, but you aren’t required to know everything! It’s also about how you get the children to learn. Yes, there may be times when you don’t know something, but use it constructively. Ask the children to find out the answer and make them responsible for their learning. Granted, you don’t want this happening too often, but don’t despair when it does.
To summarise, these simple ideas have completely changed my approach to maths. It isn’t just limited to maths now though. I know that as a PGCE student there will be many obstacles for me to climb, but I’m confident that I can handle them in the right manner. No longer will I see a failure as something that limits what I want to do, but simply as a tool to help me improve.
If anyone has any feedback for me, I’d appreciate the comments – @EuanM86
I’ve received a fair amount of comments/feedback about this post, most relating to my use of the description of a teacher as a facilitator, which I’ve appreciated. I just wanted to clarify what I mean by this, as maybe I haven’t been very clear. I mean that as the teacher, I want to be there to enable them to learn. I don’t want to just spoon feed them and am keen for them to be responsible for their learning as well. I’ve no intention to allow myself to ‘hide’ behind the word facilitator safe in the knowledge that I don’t need to improve. For me, it was the fact that it allowed me to start my teacher training without as much fear. That I could learn the skills and methods of teaching, and not be halted by what I perceive to be my weaknesses. It has given me the time to improve my subject knowledge where I feel it is weakest. As this blog is a place for me to reflect on what I’m doing and learning, I shall list what I’m doing to improve my mathematical knowledge. To date, I’ve carried out audits on my knowledge through the NCETM website (https://www.ncetm.org.uk). Any areas that I felt less confident about have been highlighted, and the necessary textbooks found that will help me.