Exploring Children’s Attitudes towards Mathematics

Ben Ashby

University of Warwick

This paper explores the behaviour, attitudes and beliefs of primary school pupils towards mathematics in the classroom and the impact that this may have on their mathematical ability. The study focused on year 3 pupils from a local school, some of whom took part in focus groups towards the end of the project. The children completed short worksheets, which were used to stimulate a guided discussion on what aspects of mathematics the children liked and disliked. The aim of this project was to isolate possible causes of negative attitudes towards mathematics and to discuss what their implications might be. Keywords: Primary, Attitudes, Purpose, Anxiety, Confidence, Language, Reflection

Introduction

Mathematicians have long held a high level of respect amongst their academic peers. Yet the subject of mathematics, although revered, remains a source of anxiety and trepidation for a large number of people. Widespread negativity towards mathematics appears in many forms, from misrepresentation in the media to the social stigma that seems to surround those who are mathematically gifted. Children often set mathematics aside as a cause for concern, despite their limited exposure to it (Hoyles 1982). It is a subject unlike most others, since it requires a considerable amount of perseverance from the individual in order to succeed. A negative attitude towards mathematics could considerably reduce a person’s willingness to persist with a problem. Without the ability to persevere, mathematical development is likely to be difficult. The purpose of this project is to determine the possible root causes of these negative attitudes towards mathematics.

The study focused on Year 3 pupils from a local school, some of whom took part in focus groups. Three focus groups were carried out, each consisting of four children with similar abilities. Children were selected based on observations from previous visits. Subjects were chosen if they displayed strong feelings for or against mathematics, or if they were at the extremes of the ability range. The focus groups lasted for approximately 30 minutes and were broken into two parts. Firstly, the children were given 10 minutes to attempt four questions tailored to their ability range. The questions involved symmetry, arithmetic, a word problem and a problem solving exercise. The remaining time was used to discuss what the children felt about mathematics, using the worksheet as a focal point. It is hoped that this project will provide significant insights into why many children have a pessimistic outlook on mathematics and indicate where future research is needed. Mathematics and its apparent lack of purpose

Children may find the nature of mathematics difficult to cope with as its wider reaching implications can be hard to see. Experiments are carried out for the physical sciences,

From Informal Proceedings 29-1 (BSRLM) available at bsrlm.org.uk © the author - 7

Joubert, M. (Ed.) Proceedings of the British Society for Research into Learning Mathematics 29(1) March 2009

pictures are drawn in art class and language skills are used in everyday interactions with other people. However, mathematics has a very formal written sense about it, where activities remain intangible to the child. From the remarks I witnessed in the focus groups, it seems that children find it difficult to make a connection between the work they do on paper and its practical applications. The following transcript is taken from the high-ability focus group: Charlie:

You need to be good with numeracy, say when you’re say, shopping for something – You need to work out how much you’re paying. You don’t have to be a genius at it, but you have to be quite good at it.

Researcher:

You mentioned shopping; do you think you use...