Do you believe you can’t do maths?

Long before I became at author, I was a maths teacher and, since I left the classroom, I’ve helped quite a few people with maths on a one-to-one basis. Over the years, I’ve heard the phrase “I can’t do maths” many times, but the people who said it were always wrong. Their problem wasn’t that they couldn’t do maths – it was that they had not been taught it well enough.

That wasn’t necessarily the fault of their teachers. I know from experience how hard it is to give individual attention to each student in a large group. You have to decide to move on to the next topic when most of the class understand what they are doing – you can’t hold them all back because one person has failed to grasp a new topic or has fallen behind because they’ve ill.

That doesn’t matter in many subjects. You can still learn about the Second World War, even if you’ve failed to learn about the first one. Not having read Private Peaceful doesn’t stop you studying Of Mice and Men and, even in science, you can learn about plant reproduction even if you haven’t mastered human nutrition.

Maths doesn’t work like that. The individual topics build on each other like bricks in a tower so, if one of the lower bricks is missing, the higher ones wobble or fall down completely. Then another difference between maths and other subjects kicks in: it’s possible to get it completely and utterly wrong. There is nothing as effective as a page full of crosses to make a student declare “I can’t do maths”.

This problem is heightened by the tendency for schools to save the most qualified maths teachers for the older and/or more able students. In primary school, maths is nearly always taught by teachers who aren’t mathematicians. However well they teach, they don’t always lay the best possible foundation for future learning because they don’t understand which bricks are are the most important.

For example, children spend many hours in primary school mastering addition, subtraction and multiplication but often spend far less time on division, although mastering it is equally important. And when they learn about fractions, they spend ages colouring diagrams showing that ¾ means three parts of four without anyone telling them that ¾ also means 3 divided by 4. That second definition is vital to tackling more advanced topics such as algebra, and students who haven’t learned it will struggle with maths through no fault of their own.

So if you think “I can’t do maths”, start saying “I haven’t learned maths” instead. If you go back and fill in the missing bricks in your tower, you’ll find maths is nowhere near as difficult as you thought. And when you start getting it completely and utterly right, you’ll find it can actually be fun as well.


A long time ago, I wrote a book called A Parent’s Guide to Helping with Maths that tackled maths step by step. That’s been out of print for years, and I”ve decided not to republish it because it’s been overtaken by changes in the curriculum. However, I’m planning to write some more material soon to help take the fear out of various maths topics, including algebra and percentages. If you’d like to know when it’s available, please sign up for my newsletter.



One thought on “Do you believe you can’t do maths?

  1. Xavier Kreiss

    You write “If you go back and fill in the missing bricks in your tower, you’ll find maths is nowhere near as difficult as you thought”.

    I respectfully disagree. The missing bricks in my case were practically everything I was supposed to learn and understand (but didn’t) over a period of seven to eight years.

    I’m French, and if maths and/or sciences (physics and chemistry, which require maths) had been a compulsory baccalaureate subject, I’d have failed and I’d have been barred from entering university, probably for life.

    My average marks in maths were 1, or 2, out of 20. Once or twice I even got 0. Fortunately my “stream” at the baccalaureate specialised in the Humanities.

    Until the age of 10 I did arithmetic and managed well enough. But from 10 to 18, I was lost. The main reason was that I was supposed to do algebra – equations etc, which to this day (I’m now 63) I cannot understand.

    Over the years, I had several different teachers, plus private tuition. Instead of getting better, the problem merely got worse with the years as I lagged behind more and more. It became a nightmare, a fear of not passing “up” into the next class …

    Since then, out of curiosity I have bought books supposed to show me that “you can do maths” or that “maths can be easy” or “fun”…I’ve usually dropped the books after about four pages, as I became lost.

    Some say “everyone can do maths”… A way of saying “I can do it, so everyone can”. Of course this, as a proposition, doesn’t stand up in logic. It’s untrue, arrogant and (I find) insulting. I did try. Hard, and for years.

    At school, several teachers more or less gave up trying to make me understand.

    I only wish I could meet some of the people who say that “everyone can do maths”. Let them talk to me a bit: perhaps they’d be convinced at last. They might consider the possibility of some people being “wired” differently.

    Best wishes,

    Xavier Kreiss

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