Should We Name and Shame Maths Hating Celebrities?

29th September 2014

Celebrities Katie Price and Duncan James About To Do Maths (on a rollercoaster)

Numeracy charity National Numeracy has recently released their 'Manifesto for a Numerate UK', containing their recommendations for the best ways to help raise levels of numeracy in the UK, such as the introduction of a new numeracy GCSE to run alongside 'normal' maths to consolidate key concepts. However, they are also taking a slightly controversial position, by recommending a sort of naming and shaming of celebrities who deliberately and publicly state that they hate and/or are no good at maths, because it sets a terrible example to young people, and makes it seem acceptable to be terrible at one of the very most important subjects at school.

We have worked with National Numeracy before, and continue to supply a certain number of carefully selected free lessons as resources to boost their adult numeracy challenge. They are very aware of the situation regarding levels of numeracy in the UK, and have their finger on the pulse of innovation and reform. Therefore, at ConquerMaths we respect their recommendations, and we agree that the UK has a certain attitude problem when it comes to maths.

National Numeracy's Manifesto certainly identifies this attitude problem, and it is an issue that we have covered in this newsletter before. They point out the fact that 17 million adults in England - half the working age population - have the numeracy skills roughly equivalent to those expected of children at primary school.

Sadly, they make a further very good point - adults in this country seem almost proud of their non-numerate status, if not proud then certainly fatalistically accepting. A rueful smile, and defensive shrug often accompanies the statement, "Oh I was rubbish at maths" or "I hated maths when I was at school". People would never admit so readily to being poor at reading and writing, in fact, to have troubles with literacy is seen as embarrassing, something people would hate to admit to. But numeracy problems are seen as unimportant.

Mr Mike Ellicock

Improvement Blocking

Mr Mike Ellicock, CEO of National Numeracy says "Believing that numeracy doesn't matter or writing yourself or others off as 'no good at maths' is harmful to individuals and to the economy. It blocks improvement - and, in a technology-dependent and increasingly competitive world, the need for improved numeracy is greater than ever."

This improvement blocking attitude is seen across our television screens as well. Mathematicians are so often portrayed as geeky and/or weird in the movies, or more accurately, movies only chose to portray certain types of mathematicians, such as schizophrenic John Nash played by Russell Crowe (below).

TV presenters make mathematical mistakes and laugh them off, actresses giggle and say things like "I'm obviously not a mathematician", celebrities avoid mathematical questions in interviews; even MPs get blatant maths wrong on camera. Recently Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne refused to answer a child's maths question on national television!

George Osborne Squirming at a Maths Question

Negative Attitudes

Unfortunately, parents can also easily pass this negative attitude the country seems to share onto their children without even realising it. A previous article we published discusses how studies have shown that parental attitudes to maths affect their children’s attitudes - and how the transference is particularly marked between mothers and their daughters. We suggested that parents watch their language and responses carefully when talking about maths, particularly when talking about their own experiences at school.

We advise parents to be honest, by all means, there is no point in lying, but to try and give everything a positive aspect such as "I was scared of maths at school, but as I grew up I realised there was nothing to be afraid of and it is a very useful subject!"

But it is not all about the parents! Even if you talk about maths in a positive light at home, the school provides a non-threatening maths environment and ConquerMaths supports your child's learning there is still the problem of adult celebrity 'role models' who will still quite happily admit how much they hate maths, and do it openly and cheerfully in the media, undermining you and your child's teacher's best efforts to show children that maths is important and not scary. This can be very frustrating, and we may not even be aware that it is happening.

We spoke about the level of influence mother's attitudes towards maths have on their young daughters, and studies have even shown that young girls are extremely likely to subconsciously mimic their female teachers attitude to maths as well. The majority of teachers know enough to suppress any negative attitudes towards maths (if they have them) in front of their students.

But this may not be the case for other 'role models' such as celebrities? For young girls, these role models may include glamour models such as Katie Price and singers such as Kei$ha. To be fair to Miss Price, she did take part in a game show in which she had to answer maths questions while riding a roller-coaster, but she really didn't do very well... these are not exactly young women who are rarely going to talk about maths at all, let alone in a positive light, and the same stands for the action movie stars and rap stars such as Kanye West which young boys often look up to.

Kanye West - Not Promoting Numeracy Here

What can we do?

Mike Ellicock, of National Numeracy states that "Throw-away remarks about being 'no good at maths' are often inaccurate and always insidious. They confuse maths and numeracy and, above all, perpetuate the view that some people are simply not 'mathematical' and that this does not matter. The expression of such views, whether by figures in public life, including the media, by parents, carers or even - very occasionally - by teachers, always needs challenging."

"We ask everyone in positions of influence - in particular those in public life and parents - to think twice before writing off themselves or others as being no good at maths. We suggest furthermore that there is a case for 'naming and shaming' prominent figures who are responsible for making thoughtless negative remarks about maths ability."

We agree that a change of attitude is possible and necessary, and we ALL need to take responsibility for it. Celebrities should certainly be encourages to think about what they say, and it is about time really.

Our only concern is that this drive could have the unwanted effect of making people who already feel bad about their lack of maths skills feel worse. The phrase "naming and shaming" could have connotations of bullying, or ridicule, and we are sure that is not what the manifesto intends!

Many people who cheerfully admit to being "bad at maths" actually secretly feel bad about it, and don't want to confront the issue. Let's be careful not punish anyone for it, but offer them an alternative way to think and behave. Let us praise those who make an effort to think and talk positively about maths, especially those who are making any kind of effort to improve their own numeracy, whether they be celebrities or 'normal' people. Even celebrities can suffer from their own lack of maths skills - Matt and Luke Goss from boy band BROS famously wasted their entire fortune because they didn't understand the difference between gross profit and net profit!

By all means, let us ask public figures to "to think twice before writing off themselves or others as being no good at maths" but let's make sure we don't bully anyone, lets make sure we focus on encouragement, not 'shaming'. We all have responsibility to change our country's attitude towards maths, and to change our children's attitudes too, not just the celebrities. Next time you hear a celebrity disparaging maths, perhaps make sure your children know you feel bad for them, and that it it not something to be proud of - and that anyone can do something about it!