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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!

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