This is an activity that can be introduced as an initial activity; perhaps after the briefest introduction to the issue of attitudes to Mathematics, but before introducing the three-part model. How much time to devote to it will depend on the time available. However, the reflection phase of the activity should be given at least ten minutes and preferably more.
The essential activity
There are different ways in which this activity should be presented depending on the particular audience. However, whatever the audience, the heart of the activity is to spend some time reflecting on the personal journey that each person has taken in relation to Mathematics. The key question, then, is:
'What has my relationship with Mathematics been like up until now? What has my journey with the subject been like over the years?'
This can be adapted to needs of the specific audience.
If the audience is a non-specialist group such as the school leadership team, a mixed group of teachers, a set of parents or school governors then participants should be encouraged to make some notes about their reflections and prompt questions can be used such as the following:
- How do you feel about the subject now?
- Have you always felt this way?
- If not what changed?
- Do you think of yourself as good at Mathematics?
- Have you always been good at Mathematics or was there a define point in your life at which your self-assessment changed?
- What was the role of other people in your mathematical journey?
Prompts about the nature of Mathematics should be avoided unless you do not intend using the “What is Mathematics About?” activity with this group.
The feedback from the activity will, of course, depend on what has gone before. With some groups it may not be appropriate to ask them to share their outcomes with each other (e.g. a group of parents). However, for all groups the key outcome is a recognition that their reflections will generally include one or more of:
- an emotional judgement about liking or disliking the subject;
- a self-evaluation about the extent to which they can or cannot use Mathematics with facility
- some kind of assessment of the nature or character of Mathematics (which could be as simple as “it is s difficult subject” or as sophisticated as “it is a philosophical machine”)
The purpose of the exercise is help people realise that their attitudes to Mathematics are not simply a matter of liking or disliking the subject. Furthermore, to help them disentangle the feelings they have about the subject from the subject itself.
Essentially the same activity can be used with Mathematics specialists. However, it is likely that their own personal journeys will be quite different from those of a non-specialist group. In particular they are more likely to have a positive emotional disposition to the subject as well as a self-evaluation of themselves as capable of doing mathematics.
Some members of the group may have experienced a shift in their attitude at some point in their lives and it would be very useful in such a case – and if they are willing – to explore their experiences in some detail.
The important outcome for a specialist group is to ensure they have a sense of how different their attitudes to Mathematics might be to those of other people and where those differences might lie. It is particularly important that such a group should be provided with materials about the three-part model and it should be thoroughly discussed. It may be appropriate to provide members of the group with a copy of Zan and Di Martino’s paper1 as advanced reading. They should also take part in the “What is Mathematics about?” and “Analysis of feelings about Mathematics” activities.
This activity can be used with children – even quite young children. Pupils could be asked to write an essay or story, perhaps using Zan and Di Martino’s[^1] original title:
'Me and Mathematics: my relationship with maths up to now.'
However, it is very important to be clear about how the outcomes are to be used. It is not an activity that one could do more than once every year or two. With pupils it would be primarily a diagnostic exercise as well as a piece of action research. The main outcomes would be to seek to redress with particular individuals the emotional impact of previous bad experiences with the subject and help them develop a positive self-image as users of Mathematics.