As a young boy in Primary School I found Mathematics lessons very stressful. Every day as soon as the teacher announced that he was going to test our mental arithmetic ‘the shutters came down’ and my mind seemed to close down.
The problem wasn’t the Mathematics, but at the time I concluded that it was and resigned myself to the notion that I was no good at Mathematics and never would be.
This is an example of conclusions a young mind can come to which would then influence the course of his life. I was lucky to have had the strength of character to overrule this decision made at such a young age and actually went on to study Mathematics and Physics at University. At the age of twenty three I qualified as a Secondary School teacher and taught Mathematics, in the main, up to eight years ago when I retired from full-time teaching to set up a private Hypnotherapy Practice with my wife Mary in the Isle of Man. The local High School still employs me on a part-time basis as an SEBD teacher to teach Mathematics to children who have trouble learning the subject.
So how did the boy who decided he was never going to be able to do Mathematics go on to teach Mathematics to the most challenged children? To answer this I will have to go back in time to when the problem with Mathematics developed.
I lived with my grandparents as a boy and my grandfather was a strict disciplinarian and retired soldier. He was a Battalion Quarter Master Sergeant which was the highest rank a non commissioned officer could hold in the Irish Army. I used to walk with my grandfather or rather march with him to Mass in Crumlin every Sunday which was about a mile from our house. I still remember him snapping out the words ‘Chin in, chest out. Swing those arms!’ all the way there and back. ‘Left, right, left, right!’ But one ritual that made me dread that march to St Agnes’ Church every Sunday with my grandfather was his insistence in testing my mental arithmetic and 24 hour clock.
‘The shutters would come down’, I would stammer and give him ridiculous answers. His face stern and with eyes which looked at me as if I was mentally deficient were enough to make me want to curl up and die. Being told again and again how stupid I was didn’t help! This was my introduction to Mathematics and though years later I could solve complex problems in Quantum Mechanics, I struggled calculating the change I should receive at the shop counter when ‘the shutters would come down’ every time I felt that same pressure to answer correctly as I had experienced as a little boy. I had internalised the critical voice and look of my grandfather so long after those marches to Mass on Sunday had ended I carried him around in my head.
A change of mind
It wasn’t until the age of 15 that I realized the difference between the Mathematics taught in Primary School and Secondary School. When it suddenly dawned on me how ideas could be expressed in Mathematical language, my mind opened to embrace knowledge which until then I had shut out. The erroneous conclusions I had come to as a young boy in Primary School I questioned and I came to new conclusions about my relationship with Mathematics.
Once I had changed my mind about Mathematics I still had the problem with arithmetic and I decided that I would have to do something about that if I was to achieve my dream of eventually becoming a teacher.
I came up with ways of tackling the problem and seeing numbers in a way that would not allow my mind to close to them. The methods I used as a boy to overcome my fear and regain my confidence are the ones I continue to share with my students. Many of my students followed my example and changed their minds about the subject. Many of them went on to become accomplished mathematicians and scientists.
Maths Tutor Program
I created a Mathematics Program to incorporate all the basics that a child needs to master arithmetic and it is this program that I gave to each of my own children who went on to excel at the subject. The Program does not look back at the student with derisive eyes. There is no judgement or criticism from the program and thus the child is free to concentrate on mastering the basics with confidence. I developed the program to ensure that my own children would master all the basics of arithmetic regardless of the school they went to or the teachers they had. It was my way of ensuring that my children would never be put off the subject by any negative experience like the one I had as a boy. I think this is a practical use of technology and an example of how we as parents can support our children more effectively.