Functional Skills and the “I can’t do maths” Paradox

By Ryan Hamilton, Consultant Coach at Libra Learning

Throughout my teaching career to date, I have had the opportunity to work with a wide range of age groups. Everything from 11-year-olds all the way to 60+ students. You would think that there wouldn’t be a huge amount of similarities in such a wide range of different learners. However, there is one thing that seems to break through all the differences in humanity and truly bring us all together. I call it the “I can’t do maths” paradox.

This is the well-known assertion stated by learners across the globe. Simply put, learners cannot do maths.

Now, there are actual medical reasons that some learners can struggle with maths such as ‘Dyscalculia’. However, from my experience, I believe most learners simply have what has been coined as ‘Mathephobia’ (BBC, 2020).  The problem with the statement ‘I can’t do maths’ is twofold. Firstly, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as if you believe you will fail at something before you start, why would you bother attempting it in the first place? Therefore, the learner does not work on their skills which then reinforces the idea they are unable. Secondly, most learners when given the opportunity and resources to succeed in their studies do so.  Only recently, it was reported by The Guardian (2019) that ‘maths anxiety’ was continuing to cause issues with learners throughout their lives. This means that the correct statement may not be “I can’t do maths’ but rather ‘I didn’t like maths lessons at school’. Once we can get this straight in the minds of learners it then becomes much easier to work on improving their abilities within Functional Skills.

Personally, I believe it comes down to the unreasonable pressure that is put on learners in traditional classrooms to constantly achieve. Individual learners’ needs cannot be fully met in a mass education system that is focussed on getting the ‘average learner’ through their exams. From my experience, there is no such thing as the ‘average learner’ and this again only acts to disenfranchise those who struggle with a certain subject, making the learner feel it is them that is at fault if they don’t understand a concept.

When signing up to an apprenticeship funded by the levy, it is a requirement to have at least a level 2 (GCSE grade C/4 or above) in English and maths. If they haven’t already achieved this, then the learner needs to achieve it whilst completing their apprenticeship. At Libra Learning, we see significant amounts of wasted potential from learners who do not have the confidence to start on the road to achieving their English and maths qualifications.

Whilst we can’t undo the negative connotations that learners have ingrained from previous classroom experiences, we can help all access what they might have felt was unachievable in the past. This is done with 1:1 customised support throughout the Functional Skills course to enable each learner to have their own bespoke journey to achieving their qualifications.

The amazing thing about what we do at Libra Learning means we get to see the change in learners when they realise that they can achieve. Unfortunately, the “I can’t do maths” paradox isn’t going anywhere, but I look forward to continuing our journey to combat Mathephobia. If you think you might be suffering from it, be confident that you are likely much better than you think. Anyone fancy a GCSE test paper?



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