I'm terrible at maths... very bad at it."
So said Prince William to a group of children recently. He has since been vilified by some people working in maths education; here are some tweets about his comment:
Prince William did the "I'm terrible at maths" thing on his tour of India. Unhelpful.
I am really fed up of people saying this. All that they do is show themselves up #ignorance
He said it out of ignorance, insensitivity, and a misplaced wish to "get down with the kids".
One of the major things that makes my blood boil. Wrong message, Prince William! (Shakes head in despair...)
Is Prince William being ignorant? Is he not allowed to say he is terrible at maths? Or that he does not like it? Does everyone have to say they are good at maths and that they enjoy it?
I would argue that Prince William, and indeed anyone, is entitled to recall positive or negative experiences of maths without being called ignorant. It is up to those working in maths education to listen and ask why.
Of course, we can not ask Prince William why he made this statement, although his GCSE grade (A or B) suggests that he might not be a terrible mathematician at all (if such a thing exists...).
Perhaps he was just reproducing a family narrative: Prince Harry has said in the past that he "...can't do maths," and their father, Prince Charles, failed Maths O-level. Teachers often get frustrated at parents expressing negative views about maths; perhaps negative attitudes to maths are largely intergenerational?
Families may well have a big influence on children's negative (and positive) attitudes towards maths. But I think that blaming others does not help. We need to listen to negative attitudes, and change our response from blaming others to asking ourselves: what are we in maths education doing to create these negative experiences?
What is it that Prince William feels he is 'terrible' at, exactly? Prince William has a limited experience of mathematics: he studied maths up to GCSE. Here are the some of the questions from the (Edexcel) Maths GCSE that he might have taken in 1998, presumably his last ever experience of studying mathematics:
This, then, is the 'maths' that Prince William believes he is terrible at, or is positioning himself outside.
As someone who loves teaching and doing maths, I find these exam questions hugely depressing. This exam paper was written in 1998 but little has changed in the 18 years since then. The GCSE content and questions are so banal that I can no longer bring myself to teach GCSE Maths.
This mathematics, which I call 'school mathematics' (comprising both the curriculum and GCSE qualification), is an impoverished, degraded version of maths that is far removed from what could and should be taught. It is barely recognisable from the the subject that so many mathematicians and maths teachers have devoted their lives to studying, and I imagine, like me, would like to share with others.
Students and teachers spend the whole of year 10 and 11 in preparation for answering banal questions like these. Students spend these 2 years preparing for an extremely high-stakes qualification that has little use value and considerable exchange value. If students don't pass their GCSE, they are told they won't be able to go into further study, and/or will struggle to get a job.
Mathematics is everywhere, it must be studied by everyone, everyone must be good at it, and everyone must enjoy it. So goes the message from maths educators and politicians alike.
Little wonder that many students leave school with an aversion to maths.
We can point to the impoverished curriculum and examinations in order to understand peoples negative attitudes towards maths.
There are wider issues: school mathematics, as a proxy for intelligence, and with the status it has been afforded, leaves children in little doubt as to their 'ability'. Prince William's belief that he is terrible at maths will have been produced by 11 years of being measured and compared with others on his performance at these types of questions. This bears little resemblance to the endeavour of mathematics at all.
Instead of getting 'fed up' every time we hear this statement - and we hear it a lot - isn't it time we asked ourselves why? Why do so many people perceive they are no good at maths? Why are they happy to say they are no good at maths? What does it mean to be no good at maths?
What is it about school maths, and the way that it is taught, that creates this powerful aversion?
What could 'we', those of us in maths education, do differently, so that people leave school with a different more positive view of maths?