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Maths Anxiety: Is cognitive load to blame?

Maths Anxiety: Is cognitive load to blame?

We’ve all heard adults exclaim, ‘I can’t do maths’. The comfort, sometimes pride, with which it is said can cause further alarm. Anecdotally, maths anxiety has always been ‘a thing’. Now there is research to support the notion. 

The issue for primary schools is children picking up this anxiety from those around them, sometimes even at school. In short, they begin to label maths as ‘hard/difficult’ and themselves as being of low ability. This mindset is a direct barrier to learning. As the old saying goes; success comes in cans, not can’ts!

In Alex Quigley’s extremely useful TES article he suggests that, ‘what we need is a plan to address maths anxiety, starting with confronting damaging social attitudes towards more maths.’ This is clearly an excellent suggestion for tackling the immediate impact of maths anxiety. Alongside this, a longer term approach might be the implementation of a number learning journey that organically builds positive attitudes from positive experiences. Far better to avoid the lion altogether, than plan how to fight it. 

What we really want is for children to come to their own natural realisation that maths is easy and they’re good at it. It’s only when our young children experience this for themselves, on mass, nationally, that we can really turn the maths anxiety issue around. Actually, it’s not quite right to say ‘maths is easy’; indeed, we want to make some parts of learning maths deliberately difficult. For example, with problem solving we definitely want learners to grapple and struggle at some point and to some degree. However, it is when children enter into these activities without the prerequisite number fluency needed to use as background knowledge in their problem solving, that cognitive overload occurs. Maths can quickly seem too difficult. Alternatively, by separating out the parts of the primary maths curriculum with maths anxiety avoidance in mind, teachers are empowered to implement an ongoing chronology that ensures children win the appropriate number knowledge before asking them to use and apply it.

When we treat the teaching of number as a separate entity, a separate subject almost, we see it with a clear sequence of progression, just as with phonics. Also like phonics, the mode of teaching needs to be one founded on explicit instruction of very small steps of progression; steps that are always ‘doable’ and understandable, due to the careful presentation of an always manageable cognitive load. When extracted from the maths curriculum, this systematic structured number journey allows teachers and learners to see the simplicity of a chronology of learning points where later points are always dependent on earlier points. Implementing this learning journey means children come to the ‘easiness’ of number progression, and the ‘can do’ realisation, ahead of taking that number fluency into problem solving and wider maths contexts. This is when children begin to experience for themselves that learning number is ‘easy’ and that they are able learners!

Trust Improvement Lead, North East

I have been hugely impressed by the level of forensic thinking that sits behind WWN. It is far from a simple programme, but rather an approach that is rooted in robust evidence of how number can be taught in a way that is accessible to all pupils. WWN offers a cohesive and evidence-informed approach to teacher-development too. It is clear that WWN has been created by people who understand school leadership, curriculum design, teaching and learning.


Maths Leader, Dubai

Winning With Numbers is easy to use and it clearly shows progress in learning. It is helping to bridge gaps, challenge students and achieve targets in maths across the school. Students and parents are able to follow the learning journey and are eager to complete WINs. There is a real buzz at our school as students achieve their WINs, we are absolutely loving the WWN app! :)


Y3 Teacher, Cardiff

Anything by Ben gets my vote! It is great to see something that has been created by someone who understands children, teachers, workload and numeracy. Through Ben's expertise, I have improved my skills in teaching maths and he has made me want to teach maths rather than fear it. This is exactly what we want for children also.


Maths Leader, Harrogate

The Winning With Numbers training was fantastic, we learned so much and have been really inspired. I'm still blown away with how brilliant the platform is and I'm excited to be getting going with it. It has already made a big difference in our school.


Class Teacher, West Wales

What Ben doesn't know about maths and the way we teach it...!!! His huge amount of expertise and experience has been a game changer for the way we teach maths! His programme makes us think differently about maths and both staff and students now really enjoy teaching and learning in this key subject.


Tutor, Northumberland

I love the simplicity of Winning with Numbers - the focus on putting in place the small building blocks of mastering foundational maths skills, in a very ordered way. I also love how there are ways for a student to review a topic if they feel they need to; giving them some ownership of their learning. This programme is a great addition to my tutoring sessions.


Deputy Headteacher, London

WWN is a highly effective programme that is deeply rooted in the science of learning with the pay off that teacher workload is minimised. It ticks all the boxes! We have seen progress maximised in each session and within a few weeks of teaching WWN.


Home-Educator, South Wales

My daughter is really enjoying Winning With Numbers and it is showing me the gaps she has in her knowledge. It has been really good going back to fill the gaps. She loves getting the celebration videos when she does well. She smiles so much! I never thought it meant this much to her but it definitely does! I would definitely recommend.


Parent, Bridgend

My son is loving it! As a teacher, I know he is getting what he needs and it is great to have something my son can work through on his own. The timer is a really helpful option. He has first built his confidence and then we can add to the challenge by using the timer option. Thank you!


Tutor, Ireland

All the students I work with are loving Winning With Numbers and the 'Be the Expert' videos are brilliant for preparing me for each session.


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Winning With Numbers works to collaborate with others to improve the life chances of young people.  Winning With Numbers is delighted to partner with some highly effective organisations .  If you would like to partner with us, please do get in touch.