Why to people find maths so difficult?

Mental imagery will improve our OECD Maths results

23RD January 2014 – When you are faced with maths does a cold shiver run down your spine? This is the experience of many and no wonder that numeracy is always in the top 10, quite often the top 2 employability issues.  Employability skills are ‘the skills almost everyone needs to do almost any job’ (UK Commission, 2009b, p.10) and numeracy is important for many roles.

Mental maths is just that; you need mental images of numbers and be able to hold them still to perform calculations in your head.  For those readers for whom this comes naturally just image what it would be like if you could not do this.  How confused would you be. This is the experience of those who struggle with maths.

Children in primary school learn to draw numbers but how do they know what to draw if they  don’t have a mental image of the number? Is it any surprise that numbers are often rotated  when they are stressed the numbers.  When children understand why the numbers are the shapes they are, they will be more successful.  There are only 10 of them to learn.

“If a child gets to secondary school at 11 years old, without these basic skills they will waste the next 5 years in many subjects” a secondary school teacher.

People who are good at maths see numbers in their head, like writing on a glass wall. This picture is a  perfect example.  All you need to do is to learn the skills that those who are very good at maths use naturally.

Olive Hickmott, expert learning coach and founder of Empowering Learning, was good at maths from a young age, learning to picture numbers and do calculations in her head quickly and easily.  Observing best practice amongst skilled and confident learners, it is clear that the ability to generate mental images and control their location, motion, size, brightness, etc are essential skills for mental maths.  She has developed a teaching model which both enhances and controls mental imagery and has taught 1000s of Practitioners worldwide.  100% of those who are struggling with numeracy are:

  • not using mental imagery for numbers
  • have not got a clear picture of how to draw a number
  • and have no idea why numbers are the shapes they are.

The skills to control mental images can be taught quickly and used immediately to accelerate progress.  Mental imagery offers a fresh, enjoyable and simple skill for teachers, parents and children.
The first thing to learn is why numbers are the shapes they are.  Those who struggle with maths will be helped with the following simple diagram, originally created by the Phoenician merchants.


1 has 1 angle, 2 has 2 angles, 3 has 3 angles, etc.  When 0 was added later it has, of course, no angles. This can easily be taught from nursary age.

The OECD’s test results for numeracy levels in the English speaking countries still have much room for improvement.  Helping children develop their mental imagery would have a very positive effect on improving these results at minimal cost.

Hickmott quotes that, “The National Curriculum calls for multi-sensory teaching and learning”.

She comments, “Being in control of your mental imagery is the fundamental basis for visual learning. Teachers however are not being taught how to help a child hone their mental imagery skills for numeracy.  Teachers can add the skills, as Continuous Professional Development (CPD),  in just a few hours on-line or through INSET training. This will enhance their teaching and provide a very sustainable and cost effective way of addressing the challenges of conditions such as Dyscalculia. This is particularly vital amongst children aged 4-7 years as a preventative measure and to ensure that they do not lose confidence and self-esteem”.

www.empoweringlearning.co.ukwww.cpdoutofthebox.co.uk and the blog at www.olivehickmott.co.uk

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