Mathematics – What’s the Problem?

Richard Evans continues his exploration of the reasons behind negative attitudes to maths in the UK

Since writing the last article (Numeracy Briefing Issue 9) on the possible factors that could contribute to the reluctance by many people to study mathematics and other mathematically-related subjects, I have reflected more on the potential interplay of the factors identified in that article. Perhaps it is too simplistic just to view the negative perception towards the subject in terms of a series of causes and effects. If the problem is about the formation of negative attitudes towards the subject then this must be recognised as a complex process that invariably involves the interaction of a number of factors that ultimately cannot be simply or completely identified and explained. Too often commentators are inclined to regard a consequence as a result of a direct relationship between cause and effect. However, this may be an over simplification. As a consequence it might be more productive to think in terms of what factors the problem is related to instead of what causes the problem. In other words it is about the subtle and complex interactions that occur between the contributing factors rather than a simple causation.

The factors.

Many of the factors have been well documented over the years and in addition to the ones identified in the last edition of the Briefing could include:

  • The environment in which teaching and learning takes place.
  • Issues associated with whether or not learning mathematics is perceived as either a pleasurable or painful experience by many learners.
  • The general perception of mathematics, particularly the perceptions by peers, parents and society in general towards the subject.
  • Textbooks, which are still narrow and mechanical in format and content.
  • Its lack of perceived obviousness or immediacy so that people do not turn to mathematics as the first resort to solve everyday problems or to understand the world.
  • People claim to survive and earn a living without having to ‘resort’ to mathematics.

An arid environment?

A great deal of research has been carried out to show how important the environment is in the facilitation of effective teaching and learning. This is particularly important when so much subject choice now exists for the learners especially post-16. Very often mathematics class rooms are dull and uninspiring when compared with other subject class rooms – with little attempt made to enrich the learning space with visual material celebrating and informing learners of the subject. This reinforces the view that mathematics doesn’t relate to any thing else – a bare room is all you need to teach it in. Its history and links with other subjects should surely assist the subject to be seen as relevant to the wider world.

Pain or pleasure.

This factor is linked with the wider issues of whether learners invariably perceive the teaching and learning process as a pleasurable or painful. The Cockcroft Report (Cockcroft 1982) highlighted the widespread prevalence of ‘maths anxiety’ amongst the general population. Bad experiences about mathematics create a view in many that it is a subject to be endured, not enjoyed, and dropped as soon as the necessary examinations results have been obtained. That distressed feeling makes it nigh on impossible for the learner, without effective remedial programmes, to develop further their engagement with mathematics later in life. Many attempts have been made to make mathematics learning more attractive and as a result more pleasurable but these worthy aims, if current evidence is anything to go by, have largely been unrealised in practice. Central to the argument is that the learner must be confident about the subject and again negative teaching and learning experiences will make this more difficult. Inevitably a number of the purists argue that the ‘pleasure principle’ should not be seen as a primary purpose of learning mathematics. However research does show that enjoyment and confidence building are critical elements in the learning process for all subjects.

Static image.

A recurring theme in this debate is that the subject is seen as being difficult, abstract, removed from reality, which has created what some people refer to as the ‘static image of mathematics’. As a result mathematics is too often seen as a ‘copycat’ subject. But with careful reform and subsequent management it can become a creative one and assume a more ‘dynamic image’ that will increase participation and retention in the subject. There is a need to dispel the myth that mathematics is a dry, mechanical tool and celebrate it as a body of living thought connected to and part of other branches of our culture, e.g. music.

The negative perception and resultant influence of gainsayers again is well documented. Sadly, many educated people reject mathematics as an intellectual interest. How many times does one hear people, often in influential positions, say openly that they got by without maths. I have attended events where the guest speaker has openly said to the audience: ‘I am useless at mathematics’! This sort of occurance highlights the depth of the problem and reinforces the widespread, perpetuating and prophetically self-fulfilling negative view of the subject.

Boring books.

Could the nature of modern textbooks also be a contributing factor? Because of the heavily prescribed curriculum and syllabuses a new industry has developed. The major examination bodies now commission publishers to write books exclusively for their syllabuses. This coupled with a plethora of revision guides again focussing on the specific syllabuses creates a narrow and mechanistic view of the subject that stifles the learning process. This narrow approach to current practice must surely weaken an appreciation of mathematics and an understanding of its inherent elegance and dynamism which are so necessary in order to be able to apply it effectively throughout a learner’s portfolio of studies and beyond into life and work. The constraints placed on the teachers and hence the learners by this government’s continual interference and interventions precipitates a number of unfortunate consequences for teachers and learners, and for the ultimate well being of the subject. Evidence has shown that a centrally mandated curriculum with its inevitable obsession with over assessment and the resultant heavy prescription further deters learners from a subject like mathematics and most certainly demotivates teachers.

Continuing debate required.

There is nothing new in what I have said but I hope this article will provoke further debate. I have attempted to highlight some of the possible factors that have created the unfortunate attitudes towards this strategically important subject. So what do the readers think as it would be interesting to identify possible solutions that could tackle the current problems?

I conclude with a controversial view about arithmetic:

“The study of mathematics starts with the teaching of arithmetic, a horrible wretched subject far removed from real mathematics but perceived by many as being useful. As a result vast numbers of intelligent people become mathematics avoiders even though they have never met mathematics. Their desire to avoid the tedium of elementary arithmetic, with its boring, unappetising algorithms and pointless drill-calculations is perfectly natural and healthy”.

(Gulberg 1997).

I’d be interested if any readers agree.

Richard Evans sits on a number of committees looking into the future of maths in the UK.


  • Cockcroft. Cockcroft, W.H. ‘Mathematics Counts’ HMSO 1982.
  • Gullberg, J.’ Mathematics From the Birth of Numbers’ Norton 1997 (p xviii). This is a fascinating book well written and introduces the reader to the wonderful world of mathematics.

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