Bad at maths? Don’t panic

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In late September the Daily Mail ran a story on research findings linking children’s low achievement in mathematics at age five to mothers’ low levels of thyroxine – a hormone essential for brain development – during pregnancy. ‘Bad at maths?’ it asked – ‘Blame your mum: Numerical skills are decided in the womb, scientists discover’.

According to Martijn Finken’s study, whilst maths ability is linked with low levels of thyroxine, the same may not be true with abilities with vocabulary and language, which he speculates may be more associated with upbringing. That he is quoted in the story as saying that the maths abilities of the children will be tracked into childhood to see if the issue persists suggests that the question of an incorrigible effect may be an open one – arguably reflected in the BBC’s more equivocal coverage of the same story. Nonetheless, with typical Mail sub-editorial panache, the story is transformed into one whereby mothers are landed with the blame for their children’s low maths ability.

Whilst this is an unfortunate example of the seemingly endless appetite in some quarters of the British media for moral panic, we should remain alert to the other negative effects that can attend such labelling. Labels such a ‘bad at maths’ can stick – especially when the view is encouraged that such abilities are innate, and even attributable to factors such as those identified in the article. It would be unfortunate for anybody to be persuaded that thyroxine levels explained or, heaven forbid, excused poor performance at maths and, importantly, that this might never be redressed.

The danger is that, by such an analysis, five year old children with little exposure to the subject within an educational environment are categorised as mathematical underachievers. The accompanying assumption that they are likely to stay there contradicts the ‘growth’ culture adopted in some schools – a feature of Dr Carol Dweck’s research that values effort and perseverance as key to cognitive development, as explained by Angela Lee Duckworth in her TED talk.

Good schools with a growth mindset can increase measurable cognitive ability which, in turn links to increases in pupils’ GCSE predictions. This works by taking away the ceilings of traditional achievement grades and feeding back to children with comments and targets only. Does it matter if they are already working at an A grade or a D grade or a particular level, when there are always new things to learn, and ideas to develop and explore? At Bedales prep School, Dunhurst we see huge growth in the cognitive ability of some pupils between years 7 and 9 – sometimes as much as a 50% rise in expectations for GCSE grade according to MidYIS data.

It is folly to label children early in their educational lives and thus generate low expectation, and I very much hope that Martijn Finken’s research will give due attention to environmental and cultural factors as he tracks the children over the next decade.

Kathy Misson

Deputy Head, Academic, Dunhurst

************************************************************************************************* Bedales School is one of the UK’s top independent private co-education boarding schools. Bedales comprises three schools situated in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: Dunannie (ages 3–8), Dunhurst (ages 8–13) and Bedales itself (ages 13–18). Established in 1893 Bedales School puts emphasis on the Arts, Sciences, voluntary service, pastoral care, and listening to students’ views. Bedales is acclaimed for its drama, theatre, art and music. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.

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