Student life – do I really hate maths?

This is a new section on my blog to talk about my experience of being a part-time student. It’s not going to be subject-specific, so you don’t have to be interested in IT, but studying for my degree is part of my life now and there are going to be things that I want to say about it!

One of the things that I’ve had to revisit in my studies is my relationship with maths.

Maths was never one of my favourite subjects at school.

I passed my GCSE, and it was a decent enough grade, but it was not as good as the other subjects that I really enjoyed and did well in.

I spent years 10 and 11 at the bottom of the top set. I even begged my headmaster to put me down a set, because I was tired of being the last to understand things, but he wouldn’t! Because my results showed that I could do the work, even if I didn’t find it as easy as subjects like English and languages.

But everyone else in the class got things first time – or it seemed like that to me – and the only way I passed was learning a set of instructions like a parrot, but not really understanding the reasons for each step. I don’t learn well that way, but it got the job done.

I spent a lot of time feeling that I was missing the point. It was illogical to me. Half the time I couldn’t even work out why we would ever want to do those calculations in real life.

Now I’m an adult. I use maths all the time in the context of running my business. Working out sales figures. Working out what percentage of the year’s income came from each marketing activity. Working out how much people have left on their account or by how much web traffic increased when compared to the last month. I use maths all the time. I love numbers and have sooo many spreadsheets.

In fact sometimes friends and family members laugh because I have a spreadsheet for most things – but if they need that information, they know I’ll have it!

Anyway – back to maths. I began to suspect that maths wasn’t the problem. Maybe I just need to se why we have to know something. I have to understand the practical reason before I can see the point or how we could apply it. I’m not good with abstracts.

But then last week there was an exercise on my course and I just couldn’t do it (binary to decimal conversions if anyone’s interested, but it’s not relevant to what I’m trying to say!) I read the explanation several times, but it was just words and numbers swimming around on the page. Reading it again didn’t help. Reading it really slowly didn’t help. Going for a coffee and coming back to it didn’t help. Not a good sign as there was an assessment coming up and I was sure it would be in there somewhere.

I asked S to explain it to me without showing him the book. He did. I got it. I could answer the questions on the test (and get them right!), but not by using the explanation in the book. It didn’t work for me.

Someone else on the course had the same problem as me. Others didn’t. I don’t think the book is bad – it’s just that people learn in different ways.

Then today there was another exercise. This time I did understand the point and when I did the self-study exercise, I got it right as well – but the explanation seemed strange to me. Why would you do it that way? It’s not logical. Maybe my brain’s just wired differently from the person who wrote it, but at the end of the day, if you get to the right answer and understand how you got there, who cares?

Except – I care, because I left school thinking I just wasn’t that good at maths. How many other young people are leaving compulsory education thinking that they’re not good at something, when really they just weren’t being taught the skill in a way that made sense to them?

I work mainly with German-speaking adults. Some of them say they’re not good at English because they never understood the grammar at school.

Some English teachers hate teaching grammar. I don’t actually mind teaching it. Most of the time there are patterns and rules that you can follow, and these rules can be your friends because as long as you understand them, they help you not to make mistakes. Of course there are always exceptions. But I’ve seen that people leave my lessons with a better understanding than when they came in, and that makes me happy! People have told me it’s not actually as bad as what they learned at school, and it makes more sense!

In terms of my relationship with maths, I’ve had to revisit it, because it’s part of my course. I’ve elected not to do half a year of pure maths, because I don’t think I could take it, but it pops up throughout the other modules that I’m taking. It’s still harder than the other parts of the module, but not because I don’t get the concepts. Sometimes I just need to find a different person to explain it or a different way to think about it. That’s ok.

Maybe young people today are at more of an advantage. If I don’t understand something or I want to know something, I ask a friend that might know, or I look for the answer online. Ok, there’s terrible information out there too, and you need some degree of internet literacy to work out what’s going to help, and what will just confuse you more. That’s a problem in the language teaching space too. But if what your teacher is saying makes no sense, or you need the information in a different way, it’s much easier to do that now than when I was at school and Google wasn’t my friend.

Sometimes it did happen when I was at school. I had a friend who would ask me to explain what we did in German class, and she said I made it easier to understand than the teacher. Maybe that was the beginning of my teaching career – who knows. But essentially we were giving her the same information, just in a different way. I never did my friend’s homework for her, but she had the tools to do it herself, rather than thinking she couldn’t even attempt it.

So now it’s made me wonder – are there other things that I thought I was rubbish at, that might not be all that bad? I just didn’t have the right teacher! We’re not all going to be good at everything, but I do think it’s sad if people give up on things when really what they need is just a different approach or a different way of learning.

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Back to school – it wasn’t like that when I was at school!

If there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to make you feel old, it’s looking at how the education system or life as a student has changed from when you were at school.

Ok, I’m only in my 30s, and I’m not actually going back to school! But stay with me here!

I don’t even know if I mentioned this on the blog, but I’m starting a course with the Open University in October. I’m doing an IT degree, which will last for 6 years, because I’m doing it part-time around my other work.

This is not my first attempt to study with the OU, but the first time didn’t work out because unfortunately the materials for the course I wanted to study could not be provided in an accessible format. I don’t really want to dwell on that, but things do seem to have moved on in terms of accessibility. It’s not 100% accessible – things rarely are – but we are working on strategies for me to get round the problems that I’ll encounter. On occasions, a sighted helper will take instructions from me to interact with graphical interfaces and do things that I can’t do because I can’t use a mouse. Diagrams will be provided with descriptions. I will work from online copies of the materials, rather than printed books.

I’ll probably write more about the course when it’s started – I know that some of my readers will be more interested in what we’re doing than in my beauty product posts, so it will add a bit more diversity to the blog. I plan to make it a regular feature.

But that’s not what I want to talk about today.

The Open University students’ Association is active on Facebook and Twitter, so I decided to follow their page. I then had an idea that there may be other groups out there – local groups, special interest groups, or course-specific ones.

In terms of networking for business, online networking is my thing, much more than face-to-face, so I thought this could be a good idea.

I joined some groups. I got accepted. Suddenly I had the chance to virtually meet up with others setting out on the same path as me.

That doesn’t mean I’ll never go to a face-to-face event, but I just find online easier – unless of course I’m in a group where all people do is post pictures that I can’t see. Then it’s not fun.

But if people are talking to each other, I’m on more of a level playing field. I don’t have to worry about eye contact, finding my way around, or noise sensitivity. Messages can be answered one at a time, rather than feeling that people are talking to me from all sides. Some of it’s blindness-related. Some of it’s sensory sensitivity-related. But either way, online is great!

But when you join groups like that, people can get a snapshot of you – where you are – who you are as an individual – what makes you really you. I don’t share my heart and soul on Facebook, so it’s probably not that revealing, but I’ve chosen to link to both of my sites, so you can get a fair idea of the kind of person I am.

My profile picture with the wolves is maybe not the most glamourous, but it’s also unique to what I love – how many people have a genuine picture of themselves casually hanging out with a couple of massive wolves?!

Some of my articles are set to public, because they are in the public domain anyway and might drive traffic to my sites. But still, you can get some idea of who I am without even exchanging a message with me.

That never used to be the case. When I joined a new school in year 12, I didn’t know anyone and had to build up a picture of who was around, whom I wanted to try and befriend etc, all based on our interactions.

If anyone starts talking to me in one of the groups now, I can click on their profile to see who they are, or at least the version of themselves that they want people to see.

Then it got me thinking about schools.

When I was at school, we didn’t have social media networks. What would I have posted if I had? I was the Hermione Granger type, so probably a lot of stuff about learning and school that others didn’t care about! Or horses. Some of it would probably make me cringe now. I’m no less opinionated than I was then, but I choose my battles more carefully!

But children nowadays? If they have a Facebook account, it means they’re never really away from their friends, or people who definitely aren’t their friends. I can see the advantages of staying in touch, but there’s also this idea that you never really get away from people whom you haven’t chosen to share your life with. As an adult, it’s easier. As a child, I imagine that must be quite tough at times.

This is a pressure, and a challenge that people of my generation never had to deal with, so we don’t really know what it’s like. That struck me today as I was signing up to Facebook study groups!

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