Led by Scientia Fellow and Senior Lecturer in Educational Psychology, Dr Rebecca Collie, the researchers tracked 194 high school students’ maths engagement for five years, from when they were in Year 6 or 7.

With a loss in engagement came a loss in aspiration, the study, published in *Educational Psychology*, found. However, Collie said the data also yielded some helpful clues for how to address this.

One such clue is that “students at different points along the way are switching on and switching off”.

Anna*, 16, bucks the research-identified trend. A Year 10 student from northwest Sydney, she said she really enjoys maths, and intends to pursue it through her final school years, as it’s a welcome counterpoint to other, more creative subjects. Like the study participants, however, many of her female *and *male friends begrudge it.

**Name changed to protect privacy. *

The path through mathematics is full of such pitfalls, and sadly many who fall by the wayside do not return. How can we restore math-confidence in those who have lost it? I don’t believe there is a single answer to this question, but here are some thoughts.

Someone who is traumatised by mathematics cannot simply be expected to again, but just try harder, and reminding them that they will need this skill in the real world will just compound the shame of failure. So, instead of trying to put them back onto the road they fell off, find them a different road.

I teach first-year mathematics students, and I recall one student in particular who was traumatised by simultaneous equations. He would flatly refuse to apply the standard high school methods. But he would gladly solve simultaneous equations using a matrix. The matrix method is technically excessive, but for him, it had the single important advantage of being different.

Now, let’s imagine a student who is unable to perform arithmetic. Arithmetic is the goal, and the fastest path is memorisation. But the student’s experience on this path has been traumatic and now the student reasonably believes that further attempts along these lines will only lead to failure. How could a teacher help? You might like to pause for a moment and consider what you would do or have done to help such a person. Here are some ideas that could work in this situation:

- Teach them to use an abacus. Arithmetic can be understood as the purely physical activity of moving beads on a frame. Addition, subtraction, multiplication and division can all be performed by repeating a pattern with your hands.
- Teach them binary arithmetic. Binary arithmetic looks strange to decimally-minded people, but it is actually the simplest form of arithmetic. The idea of learning the binary number system might be both achievable and palatable because it is does not immediately reignite traumatic thoughts.

Other ideas would be to use Cuisenaire rods, or modular arithmetic. These are just some of the many paths to understanding the fundamentals of arithmetic, and I’m sure there are many others, besides. Mastering a different strategy doesn’t teach arithmetic as directly or easily as memorisation. The advantage, however, is that the student can circumvent trauma by finding a different path to understanding.

The real question is matching the person to the path. Students do not need to stay and suffer on a path that does not work for them, they can and should get off and try something different. While arithmetic may be fundamental and even universal, it is a concept understood by humans, and this human element permits an unlimited number of different and legitimate understandings.

**Dr Daniel Mansfield is a lecturer in the School of Mathematics and Statistics at UNSW.**

First, she debunked perhaps the most common math myth: the math brain. According to Boaler, learning math, or any skill for that matter, comes down to willingness and practice.

Unpacking the maths-brain myth. Create new pathways to learn maths! Just like all learning! #DECDJoBo pic.twitter.com/9jfSRDY348

— Jason Loke (@Jason_Loke) July 24, 2017

She also takes issue with the fact that, more so than the teaching any other subject, maths is speed and performance oriented. This focus, she contended, inhibits deep, critical and creative thought. It also stymies discussions around math's applicability to the real-world. What's more, especially for girls who are more anxiety-prone, the way this orientation plays out can be crippling. Timed tests can provoke anxiety, which in turn impedes performance.

Maths learning is not about speed. Speed focus increases anxiety and blocks working memory capacity #decdjobo pic.twitter.com/9aQAXtZ5gJ

— Femia (@femiaaa) July 24, 2017

Boaler additionally argued that the way math is represented is problematic. "Math is taught as a set of procedures and calculations, when brain research tells us that visual representations and ideas are really important for brain connections and mathematical growth", she said.

In our performance-oriented world, Boaler's entreaty for teachers to 'value struggle and mistakes' in math may be difficult to institute, but, judging by the conference crowds' standing ovation reception, they'll surely try.

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