The Elephant and the Twig – Maths Anxiety

Maths anxiety is a real issue with students sitting maths in FE.  The students we teach have often not been successful in the past be they 16-18 year olds resiting again or adults that have bravely returned to education.

Due to poor past experiences, a history of perceived failure and the general cultural attitude that maths is a hard and scary subject these students enter our classrooms sometimes paralysed by fear and anxiety.

I would like to share a story that I told my students at the start of the year to try to relieve some of this anxiety.  It is a story I first read in Geoff Thompson’s ‘The Great Escape’.

The illustrations below are by my wife and are taken from her cartoon ‘Penguin Loves Mev’ which documented the first 8 years of our relationship.

elephant and twig

Our students will often feel like the elephant.  After repeatedly not performing in class and not achieving a grade 4/C they have a type of learned helplessness and no longer want to try.  The have the belief that they cannot pass – that they are “just not good at maths”.

What I told my students is that they don’t necessarily need to believe they can pass at the start of the year – they just need to forget that they can’t.  If the elephant forgot that the rope restrained him, he would take a step forward, the twig would pop out of the ground and he would be away.  Like our students, if they could forget they can’t do maths – follow a worked example and then solve a problem, they might just find that they can.


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