Maybe it was the warm September sunshine, or the end of a long week in the school, or simply a little Friday evening excess? Either way, I pitched up to my first Maths Scholars event feeling a bit lethargic, intellectually. Fortunately, we started with a warm-up via a ‘get to know your team’ maths quiz. Great, I like quizzes. But soon an incipient panic started to take hold – this quiz was hard, and fast, and somewhat chaotic (but very friendly) in team organisation. Maybe I only like quizzes on my terms (in my own time, working quietly on my own or with people I know well). Maybe my maths knowledge is just so far out of date (graduated 1988) and my brain has slowed so much in recent decades that I am in the wrong game. Is this just me thinking and feeling this, or do we all have a little bundle of maths anxiety gnawing away inside us? If we, maths teaching scholars, feel like this, how much more intense the feeling must be for our new Year 7 pupils? Many will have loved and thrived in primary maths, and will now be wondering what on earth is this austere world of algebra in which they now find themselves.

We pulled ourselves together as a team, then into the first session: a fantastic multi-media exposition on some maths of Trafalgar by Peter Ransom of The Mathematical Association, complete with cannon balls shattering wooden boards. Skipping through the history, characters, and technology at pace, Peter showed brilliantly how one could tease out the many dimensions of maths hidden in a topic we would normally leave in the box marked history.

But then maths anxiety struck again, when Peter tasked us with calculating piles of cannonballs. Faced with some elementary arithmetic for the sums of series, my brain curdled, as did that of my table partner Emma. We floundered around with some messy calculations, getting more frustrated and less maths-fluent by the second.

Fortunately, Peter came to our rescue, not with the answer, but with the simple comment: Look inside the box on your table. We found a dozen little fuzzy balls, which Emma and I quickly built into a model of a cannonball pile, a simple specific example of the type we were struggling to crunch with algebra. Instantly, the answer appeared before our eyes, just by inspecting the shape we had built. We then ‘built’ the algebra from the 3D model, tested it, and generalised – result! Maths anxiety receded, put back in its box (for another day).

What did I learn? First, how our students must feel, even those who are high attaining mathematicians, when they are out of their comfort zone. Second, remember to strategise about problem-solving – can I tackle this a different way, using different thinking? Third, the teacher opened the path to our eventual success simply by allowing an alternative way of seeing – fuzzy balls can cure maths anxiety.

By Daniel Storey