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The maths gene? It all adds up to a myth

The founder of Maths Week on how everyone can get to grips with the basics – and how we need to for everyday life.

Eoin Gill

THERE IS A strong and misguided belief in a broad segment of society that people are somehow genetically programmed to be good or bad at maths. When people say that they don’t have the maths gene it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It is simply not true that some people can’t do maths and it is one of our goals to dispel this dangerous myth. The message of Maths Week, which is currently taking place across Ireland this week, from today, is that everyone can do maths. It’s just like any other subject.

Of course, not every child can go on to be a top mathematician but by the same token not everyone who plays football can represent Ireland. Everyone can do better at maths and sports and enjoy themselves at the same time.

No one would accept it if a person said they can’t do English, we need to engender the same attitude in relation to maths. If children have a positive experience of maths and get a sense of achievement out of mastering elements of the subject they will be motivated and will thrive at it.

Understand your phone plan and your payslip

Maths Week aims to help people understand the value and importance of maths in their everyday lives. The reality is that people need maths skills if they are to understand their phone price plans, calculate their household budgets, and make sense of their payslips. If you don’t understand what a percentage is how can you figure out the special offers in supermarkets or the taxation changes made by the Minister for Finance in the budget?

A recent OECD report found that under half of the UK participants reached the necessary standard in basic financial maths. Ireland didn’t participate in the study but there is no reason to believe we don’t have major problems with everyday financial reckoning.

longdivision When people say that they don’t have the maths gene it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In many cases the basic reason why people don’t succeed at maths it is because they do not believe in their own mathematical ability. However, it is quite often the case that those same individuals exhibit very strong mathematical aptitude in other aspects of their lives.

Many people who haven’t achieved high standards in maths and who would claim they have no talent or feeling for maths may be able to add up darts scores at blindingly fast speeds and with total accuracy or work out the odds on a horse racing accumulator bet. They have no difficulty with addition, subtraction, multiplication, divisions, fractions or percentages in certain contexts and with practice. They clearly aren’t missing the mythical “maths gene”.

People have the potential to be good at maths even if they don’t realise it.

Maths Week is an opportunity to tap into the areas which people are motivated by and help guide them forwards from there. The week isn’t just for school-goers, however. It is for teachers and parents and the public as well.

The biggest predictor of children’s success at school is their parents and the educational ethos that is transmitted in the home. If we can convince parents that they and their children can do better at maths we will go a long way to achieving our goals.

As a nation we have to ensure that everyone does much better at maths. At the moment we are in the top half of the international maths classroom but if we are to realise our ambitions in terms of becoming a knowledge economy we need to do be at the top.

Ireland has a continuing demand for skilled workers in IT, engineering, science, financial services and other areas depending on mathematics. We can’t have a situation where we are importing all our skilled people. We need to raise everyone’s standards when it comes to maths.

Of course, not everyone can become a mathematician, an actuary or an engineer but by becoming better at maths they can become better at whatever job they do. Maths helps people in every aspect of their lives at home, at work, and in their understanding of the natural world.

Over the next number of days more than a quarter of a million schoolchildren and thousands of adults will take part in this all-Ireland celebration of all things mathematical. Maths Week promotes awareness, appreciation and understanding of maths through a huge variety of events and activities which are organised by a partnership of over 50 groups including universities, institutes of technology, colleges, museums, libraries, visitor centres, professional bodies and other organisations which understand the importance of maths to society.

Maths through the medium of clowns

Events are firmly focused on the fun as well as practical sides of mathematics with presentations from mathematical clowns, magicians, bubble artists and others taking place around the country.

Children can learn about the maths behind code making and breaking, internet searches, construction, and even juggling.

This is the eleventh year of Maths Week and it has grown in size every year since we started. Joining local presenters we have more than 20 international speakers and entertainers performing at events in over 50 venues around the country. In addition, most schools around in Ireland are organising their own events around the week.

The aim of all of these events is to take maths out of the text-book and show other aspects of the subject that the curriculum doesn’t have space for. To show that maths can be enjoyed rather than endured, and crucially that maths is for everyone.

Eoin Gill is the founder of Maths Week Ireland.

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Eoin Gill

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