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How the trade union approach to learning helps workers overcome maths phobia

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 1 August 2019

Beth Kelly.

The more collaborative style of learning led by trade unions in the workplace helps people to become more motivated and confident about learning and using mathemtics. Indeed, my new research shows that even long-held negative feelings towards mathematics can be overcome.

The study, published in Motivating adults to learn mathematics in the workplace: a trade union approach, finds a strong link between developing adult learners’ confidence and the support provided by local social networks and the particular pedagogic processes promoted by trade unions in the workplace. However, there is still much debate about the value of using trade union resources to support such skills development. This is despite evidence from government-funded research showing that it is one of the ‘few effective existing models of work-based support for mathematics and English’ and highlighting the role of peer support.

My qualitative research took place with people who were learning maths up to GCSE level through their trade unions in the workplace. I interviewed twelve men and eight women aged between 25 and 65. They came from a range of trade unions and were employed in a variety of contexts, in small and large organisations, publicly and privately owned. They studied in a variety of environments; individually following on-line courses with tutor support or in teacher-led groups.

In workplaces where trade unions are active, Union Learning Representatives (ULRs ) act as part of a supportive social network of trusted trade union members. Their role it is to encourage colleagues to join mathematics (and other) classes to develop their ‘employability’ skills, while ensuring the classes are accessible, fitting in with irregular work patterns in convenient workplaces. Trade unions also argue they promote teaching and learning approaches that develop collectivist and activist principles, which is often different from the traditional mainstream education ethos in schools and colleges that tends to be more individualistic.

The adult learners interviewed described the importance of having a ‘different’, more positive learning experience in relation to their motivation to learn mathematics. They perceived the learning (pedagogical approach) to be more collaborative than previously experienced. It took place in smaller classes, in a relaxed atmosphere where they felt they could talk openly about mathematics and their problems. Additionally, where possible, topics that were related to their work or everyday life.

The adults often used emotional language in response to questions about their motivation to learn mathematics, indeed twelve of the interviewees talked about feeling a change in their confidence when explaining their current motivation.

The data analysis shows that – when they are given a second chance to achieve in a subject that has high social value, such as mathematics, even after previous difficult learning experiences – adults can develop positive feelings towards the subject, illustrating what can be termed a positive Affective Mathematical Journey (AMJ). This effect results in them being motivated to act more confidently in relation to mathematics both inside and outside the classroom. For example: two talked about using their skills to negotiate with management on behalf of fellow trade union members, four had become ULRs encouraging others to develop their personal skills, two became teachers of mathematics within the trade unions while one more learner was about to start training for that role.

Although the learning takes place in the workplace, the findings are nevertheless relevant to practitioners working with adult learners in both traditional and non-traditional settings. The research points to the importance of recognising the role of emotions and feelings as well as pedagogy when dealing with adults whose learning has ‘stalled’.  The more supportive, collaborative approach to learning, where people can talk about their mathematical misconceptions in a relaxed atmosphere, without fear of ridicule, is an approach that is currently used in some mainstream mathematics classes but could be promoted more widely, especially when working with adults.

The research by Beth Kelly expresses the independent evidence-based views of its author; no funding was given by any trade union in support of the work. Beth is an Honorary Research Associate at UCL Institute of Education and is the new Chair of Adults Learning Mathematics (ALM), an international research forum.

Photo: Bristol Royal Mail learning centre, Bristol. Shot on commission for South West TUC. © Jess Hurd


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3 Responses to “How the trade union approach to learning helps workers overcome maths phobia”

  • 1
    rogertitcombe wrote on 1 August 2019:

    This is really interesting and provides strong support for the power of socialised learning in which students/adults/anybody are encouraged to think deeply about their own personal internal mental struggle to understand (metacognition) and then verbalise and share this with peers without fear of ridicule or shame. It is all about recognising what you do and don’t understanding then discussing it.

    It is the mainstream approach of the cognitive acceleration movement based firmly on the learning theories of Piaget and Vygotsky that the marketisation of the education system is trying to replace with ‘knowledge-based’ instruction. There is much more about this on my website, where this would be a good place to start.


    Even more important this form of learning develops cognition resulting in a growth in personal general intelligence, leading to students that can become teachers themselves, spreading the message and not being intimidated by the clever nastiness of the likes of Boris Johnson.

  • 2
    Jenny Stacey wrote on 7 August 2019:

    Thanks Beth, that looks really good, and I look forward to reading more on your research, through the ALM conference proceedings and/or journal?
    There are a couple of points I would like to make.
    Firstly, as a result of teaching FS and GCSE mathematics to adult learners whose first language was not English, I have explored some of the differences between languages, awareness of which might help maths teachers. The paper for this can be found on the ALM website, conference proceedings, ALM 25, London, and specific information about differences in languages and maths cultures on http://www.esolmaths.co.uk. This has led me to deliver maths as if it is a foreign language for most learners in my classes, talking though key definitions, and leaving them up on the board for the whole lesson. It is astonishing how dependent we are on language in maths, and if you do not understand the language, it is impossible to answer the questions!
    Secondly, I am in the process of a doctorate, the research focus of which looks at similar issues around anxiety in adult FE classes, whether confidence levels improve over the duration of courses, and if there is a correlation between those levels and examination results.
    Best wishes,

  • 3
    John J. Keogh wrote on 8 August 2019:

    This is a really insightful and timely piece of work – well done. Mathematics education in the workplace is enhanced by its context by providing a proximal and relevant platform for meaning-making. Historically the Trade Union movement has promoted, established and protected the members’ terms and conditions of employment. That the workplace-learners do so with the support and encouragement of their Trade Union accentuates mathematics-learning as a component of the workers’ wellbeing. Learning mathematics is a special case because of the widespread negative feelings regarding mathematics, its personal (ir)relevance and the misguided belief that it is only for ‘maths people’.
    The expectation of a ‘job for life’ has long been consigned to history. The advent of processes and procedures underpinned by technology continues to replace jobs at an ever-accelerating rate. How should the Trade Unions respond? While the impact of the latest ‘Industrial Revolution’ cannot be completely anticipated, it is reasonable to expect that ‘old’ jobs will be replaced by job types that have not yet been imagined. The key question is whether there will be enough new jobs for everyone who wants to work and if so, what can be done to prepare workers to meet the challenges of change that is just over the horizon?
    It may well be that future generations of workers will be prepared for the career opportunities that emerge in the 21st century. However, there may be many workers faced with a period of transition to a new job or even redundancy with little prospect of re-employment. The initiative to support and enable learning in the workplace is vital. That the workers are given the opportunity to appreciate their own capabilities, especially regarding mathematics, is crucial so that they may embrace the learning they need to adapt.
    Best of luck with this work, John J. Keogh.

    (Based on Adults Mathematics and Work: from Research into Practice. Keogh, Maguire and O’Donoghue. Published by Brill|Sense. ISBN 978-90-04-38174-2)