Success in maths adds up to personal power

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Tuesday, 17 Aug 2010

For immediate release Tuesday August 17 2010
Success in maths adds up to personal power

Students’ attitudes to mathematics can determine their success or failure, and ultimately their social status as adults, according to emeritus professor of the philosophy of mathematics education at Exeter University in the United Kingdom Paul Ernest.

Professor Ernest will speak about the social outcomes of learning maths at the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) conference in Melbourne today.

“Many students develop negative attitudes about maths and about their own ability,” Professor Ernest said, speaking ahead of the conference.

“Attitudes are vital to success, and for students a lack of confidence becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said.

Negative attitudes lead to a ‘failure cycle’. Students fail at one task and think they don’t have maths ‘talent’. They lose confidence, stop trying, and continue to fail at maths, which reinforces their perception that they lack talent.

Instead, maths education should bust the myths about maths, which include that:

• success in maths is due to talent rather than to effort

• boys are better at maths, and

• maths is unrelated to day-to-day life.

Professor Ernest said that teachers must bust the myths about maths to ensure students make the effort to learn and this will lead to a ‘success cycle’. Students put in effort, succeed at a maths task, gain confidence, and continue to be motivated in maths.

“Attitudes, beliefs and values have a strong influence on how students learn maths. We need to pay much more attention to this in school,” Professor Ernest said.

“Teachers should help students to develop mathematical confidence and creativity, a broad appreciation of maths, and even social empowerment through maths.

“Contrary to popular belief, mathematics is a political subject. Economics is applied mathematics and this is the main language of politics, power and personal functioning in society. It is essential for a functioning democracy.

“Maths is embedded in social, commercial and political systems, from advertising in the financial sector to government and interest-group claims. Understanding maths allows citizens to critically evaluate information, where necessary to reject spurious claims, and to ensure they are not misled.

“People need to understand maths to be successful in day-to-day life,” he said.

ACER Research Conference 2010, Teaching Mathematics? Make it count, takes place at the Crown Conference Centre, Melbourne on 16 and 17 August. Further information is available from


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Louise Reynolds – ACER Corporate Communications
Phone: (03) 9277 5582 or 0419 340 058