Maths Phobia: an Unconventional View


This post is based on a mixture of personal experience and information that can be found on the Internet. It makes no claim to be scholarly in any sense. However, I hope that it might serve to provoke informed discussion about the perennial issue of maths anxiety.


I have been a numerate person for as long as I can remember, and I attribute this to the generally good understanding of maths by all my school teachers. In my middle years, I was trained as a teacher by teachers who themselves modelled best practice. A few years ago, I was accepted to run a workshop aimed at addressing maths anxiety in participants. It seemed to me that the logical thing to do was to give a sample session on maths while modelling best practice. The results surprised me. While some participants felt they had benefited, others went away feeling even more anxious about maths. The time has come to put that experience into a wider context.

Other Sources

There is a growing body of evidence of differences in what is happening in the brain between people who suffer from maths anxiety and those who do not. Ruth J. Hickman wrote this piece which is suitable for the general reader. For people more interested the neurological basis of maths anxiety, there is this article by Ian M. Lyons and Sian L. Beilock. These are just two examples that can be found on the Internet, and there are plenty more.

A Wider Perspective

While there is a wealth of self-help techniques available on the Internet, I think that they miss the point: anxiety is a psychological condition, and it should be treated first and foremost by a clinical psychologist, and done so in conjunction with a maths teacher who understands the existing maths skills and knowledge of the anxious person. There appears to be very little discussion on this approach, and while it may seem a “suggestion too far” for some people, I hope it provokes comment from others. Given the cost to society of innumeracy, can we afford not to involve psychologists in this?

Don’t Be Scared, It’s Only Maths!


I was co-moderating a webinar a few days ago when the subject of numeracy came up, and I had my usual rant about the teaching thereof. Now, I would like to share my thoughts on some of the challenges that teachers might face when it comes to maths.


One of my teachers in kindergarten had a very good understanding of how to teach place value. She made it simple for this six year-old child to see the pattern. She praised correct answers to questions, and fostered my own fascination with patterns. Later teachers also taught the patterns of numeracy, and I was hooked for life. This is evident in both my work and my leisure activities.

Other teachers in my primary schooling demonstrated a poor grasp of not just numeracy, but also of reasoning (the next step up in the field of mathematics). It was this that caused me to rant.


I have heard two main reasons for why people find maths less than appealing. The first is that “it is all too complicated”. This may be due to the intellectual bias of the learner, but most of the time it seems to come down to the teacher lacking either or both of two key skills: a thorough grasp of the material being taught, and an ability to put it across in such a way that the student can learn. The other reason is that students don’t engage with the subject: they do not see it as being relevant to their lives. Again, this comes down to the teacher: the relevance of numbers in our lives is not communicated.


I cannot remember a time when I was unable to do simple multiplications in my head, so working out the total cost of three bananas at $2.00 each is trivially easy for me. At the other extreme, I have seen people being totally confused when I have tendered $12.30 for an item costing $7.30 . Having said that, I can share an experience where the real-life relevance of what I was learning was not to become apparent for 20 years.

There is something called “constrained optimisation”, where the basic idea is to make as much money as possible from any given situation, usually some sort of manufacturing. The favourite scenario used by maths teachers seems to be breweries. I can also remember this being used in my own schooling, but I soon forgot about it in the flood of mathematical techniques that I was learning. In terms using of those techniques in the abstract setting of a high school maths class, I was entirely comfortable

It was not until 20 years later that the importance of those mathematical techniques in the human context was to become apparent to me. I was told by my employer that the results of my mathematical labours were saving them around $10 million each year. Had it not been for my own fascination with patterns, I would not have remembered what I had learned 20 years previously.


The human cost of innumeracy should not be underestimated. I see it every time I care to look (which is not very often, as I find it distressing). I see innumeracy as being as disabling as illiteracy. If this post is about anything, it is a plea to decision makers to drag the teaching of mathematics up to the level that applies to literacy.

Proud to be Innumerate?


I have been vaguely aware for decades of people being proud of their innumeracy. A recent experience brought this awareness into sharp relief, and this post explores my thoughts on the subject of innumeracy.

What is Innumeracy?

It can be slightly difficult to define innumeracy in terms of mathematical content (“Can you add up two numbers in your head?”), but it is rather easier to define it in terms of how it impacts on people’s lives.

For example, the ability to reckon with money is crucial for tradesmen, but it ability to “count out the change to the amount tendered” is not usually important to people in a supermarket checkout. However, there are other walks of life, such as traffic flow management in a city, which require being fully skilled in some specialised areas of mathematics, and anybody with out those skills could not function.

Innumeracy and Literacy

There is agreement in most societies that literacy is an important skill which everybody should have. It would be pointless to reiterate the reasons behind that feeling.

But as with numeracy, there are different levels of literacy. Journalists, by the very nature of their work, are highly literate creatures. People who write blog posts also need a certain level of literacy, though nothing like to the same degree. Anybody who has been involved in a serious car accident will have needed to write an accident report. Having some anonymised accident reports on the Internet, it soon becomes apparent that some people are functionally illiterate.

In the light of this, I would argue that while the levels of illiteracy and innumeracy may be different in society as a whole, they are different manifestions of the same underlying problem: the lessened ability to function in today’s world.

Why is Innumeracy Tolerated?

The heading for this section of this post is deliberately provocative, and is a consequence of my own annoyance at those who appear to be proud of their own innumeracy.

I would guess that a lower level of numeracy than level of literacy is required to operate successfully in today’s world. You may wish express your own opinions on this matter in the comments section at the bottom of this post.

If people are happy with their lives with their current levels of numeracy and literacy, that is a life choice that they make, and I feel that they should be allowed to get on with their lives without anybody else saying “You really ought to learn about …” – that for me would amount to intolerable interference. For myself, I am driven by a need to learn about a particular area of mathematics. (If you really want to know what that area is, then follow this link.)

However, I draw the line at people who are proud of their innumeracy. It seems to me like a form of inverted snobbery. That would be okay with me if that was as far as it went (I could simply ignore them), but such people are inevitably rôle models for others, particularly children. In doing so, these people are handicapping their next generation, and is to my mind no more acceptable than the practice of binding children’s feet as they are growing up.

In short, I wish such people would keep their innumeracy to themselves.