Does the thought of helping your child with maths homework take you back to the trepidation of doing a school exam on the subject?
If it does, you’re not alone, as studies have found that at least 20% of the population have some degree of maths anxiety. It’s also been discovered that parents can pass on this anxiety to children through subtle cues, not to mention more obvious statements such as “I’m not a maths person, ask your father/mother”.
Those parents include people like me, who have long compared ourselves to those at the opposite end of the spectrum – “maths people” – who excelled in the subject at school and perhaps also university. But they, too, can struggle to convey their sense of wonder in maths to their children, or lack the patience to pass on their understanding of it.
Recent research from the University of Glasgow has found that girls have more negative feelings towards maths than boys in 80% of countries across the globe, including Australia. However, maths anxiety still affects boys, who often feel more pressure than girls to perform well in the subject.
This helps explain why superstar maths teacher Eddie Woo’s book Woo’s Wonderful World of Maths has become a best-seller since it was released in late September 2018.
The success of Woo’s book follows the popularity of his maths lesson videos on ‘Wootube’, which have been viewed more than 16 million times and amassed a following of more than 270,000 subscribers. In 2018 Woo was named Australia's Local Hero of the Year and shortlisted as one of the top 10 teachers in the world at the Global Teacher Prize.
With an endearingly natural enthusiasm, humour and humility, the head maths teacher at Sydney’s Cherrybrook Technology High School can help all parents and, in turn, their children fall in love with numbers - if they are willing to invest a little time.
Part of Woo’s secret is that, by his own admission, he was not always good at maths himself “and in some ways still isn’t” he told ABC’s 7.30 program in November.
Woo grew up wanting to teach English and history, subjects with which he felt a natural affinity. He switched to maths teaching only at university on the advice of a lecturer.
Therein lies another key to Woo’s success, his love of narrative and storytelling - two things not often associated with maths lessons.
He shares his fascination at things we see in the natural world, such as rainbows and sunflowers, to everyday mysteries including why mobile phone batteries sometimes seem so unpredictable. He then explains the ‘why’ behind these phenomena with the help of pictures and graphs in very accessible language.
Reassuringly for me, the book starts off by questioning the belief that some are born “maths people”, stating in bold capitals letters: “WHAT DO ALL MATHEMATICIANS HAVE IN COMMON? THEY STUDY PATTERNS”
I could relate to that because I have loved patterns in language in the same way as others enjoy the patterns of nature or different art forms.
Another chapter I found fascinating is about why we love listening to harmonies, with Woo explaining that listening to music is when we “count without knowing it”.
Woo’s book has helped me step in with bigger picture narratives, something with which my son is more comfortable than formulae. The book also made me feel more at ease with reading about topics such as trigonometry and geometry, which I hadn’t done since school, even including fractals and knot theory!
As I’ve only recently read the book, I can’t report any miracle changes in my son’s results.
But if a book gives parents the means to engage more with their children about a vital subject that can be problematic, then Woo truly deserves his hero status.
Advice to My Younger Self - ABC 7.30 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=leigGc1-fAA)