WA teachers warn parents not to tell their kids they hate maths

When asked to recall her experience with mathematics in high school, the main thing Sophie Cooper remembers is the anxiety that came with being told she was wrong.

Choosing high-level maths alongside physics, Cooper said she had been one of the few girls in her classes and had wanted to prove to herself she could do it.

wa teachers warn parents not to tell their kids they hate maths

Cooper and her two daughter still at school – Ophelia, 14, and Hope, 16.

“But you got told you were wrong, there was no black and white, and it was disheartening to go back and try again,” she said.

“I was always second-guessing myself.”

Now a mother with four teenage daughters, Cooper said she never wanted her girls to feel the same, and has been very aware of helping them love the subject.

Two of her girls have since graduated – one chose to do the higher level maths courses while the other chose not to.

Cooper said the daughter who had chosen the higher level maths had come out of the experience with “PTSD” from stress, but her other daughter enjoyed for the subject.

“I think it comes down to that pressure that is outside parental, and even a teacher’s, control – it really affects young girls,” she said.

“It’s just the way the system functions at the moment.”

But how can parents do their best to encourage children to enjoy maths, especially if the subject was never one they loved?

It turns out the advice is fairly simple – don’t tell your children how much you hated it.

“Your children look up to you, you are their role model,” Cooper said.

“They are very likely, particularly in their younger years, to copy you.”

John Curtin College of the Arts assistant head of mathematics Donna Buckley said she had witnessed the way homework she set struck fear in parents.

Buckley, who is also a star award winner with Women in Technology WA and recipient of the Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools 2023, said research showed as soon as mothers said to their daughters, “I wasn’t good at maths at school”, their daughters’ achievement went down.

She recalled how her own love for maths began in year 1, excited when she figured out how to count to 100 and then ecstatic when she learnt you could count numbers forever.

“I didn’t even know it was maths at the time, it was just this ‘ah-ha!’ moment,” she said.

But as she got older, Buckley said she became disengaged from school.

“No one ever would have thought I would become a teacher,” she said.

“But I wanted to help other students who were disengaged.”

Buckley said while maths anxiety was a problem anyone could face, it was mostly her female students who suffered.

“Girls so often screw up their work and throw it away because it’s not neat and tidy enough, it’s not 100 per cent correct – they often have this fear of making mistakes, and it holds them back,” she said.

“Boys – not all boys obviously – will tell you with confidence how good they are even after they have made mistakes.”

Buckley said it was important for parents and teachers to take the focus off getting the answer right or wrong, and instead focus on the journey, and recommended using a whiteboard so mistakes felt less permanent.

She also said it was important for parents to engage with their children during maths homework.

“Parents – put on your best acting skills and show how thrilled you are when your child asks you for help with a maths problem. If you don’t know the answers say, ‘Let’s find out together’,” Buckley said.

“It is OK if you find it difficult, let your children know and always tell them you are proud of them for working hard, not of how smart they are.”

One mother who has followed this advice is Jo Joyce. Her daughter Charlotte is in year 10 at John Curtin and deciding whether to take on two maths subjects in year 11, something that brings Joyce “some quiet, internal joy”.

But maths never came easy to Joyce at school.

“I remember in year 3, being timed for mental maths and having to stand up and reveal my score out of 20 – to have to call out some low number like five or six, and hear the muffled giggles from my classmates brought me shame and feelings of anxiety,” Joyce recalled.

“I learnt at a very young age, that to be good at maths you had to be fast. I wasn’t fast, and therefore I was no good. Maths anxiety began there for me.”

But Joyce said it was those bad experiences that led her to become a primary school specialist maths teacher.

Her daughter attended Spearwood Alternative School, where Joyce has now taught for many years, which meant for a while, she was teaching her maths at school and at home.

“I would highlight the maths around us and engage her curiosity around numbers and patterns,” Joyce said.

“In high school, I’ve asked questions and shown interest in what she was learning, asking her to show me her way of solving the problem.

“If it was different to mine, that would create a great opportunity for comparison and discussion.”

Joyce said a good maths teacher could lead children to discover the beauty in maths.

“Mathematics is, at its heart, visual, creative and colourful and exists all around us every day, yet it is often taught in such dry, repetitive and mundane ways,” she said.

“Where are all the colourful and tactile mathematics tools and opportunities for discussion in our high schools? Without all these facets, we are doing not only our students a disservice, but also mathematics in general.”

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