Visual Thinking 101_5 Taking the fear out of maths

There is an underlying problem with the way maths is taught in primary school, even Rishi Sunak, the UK Prime Minister noticed this yesterday. But nobody is talking about the hole in the national curriculum, that assumes that very young children can picture numbers as controlled mental images. This is a presupposition of the whole system. For even the most basic mental arithmetic mental images are essential; students need to be able to picture numbers, in any of their formats (linguistic, symbolic and analogical code), as mental images. There is no alternative, this is, after all, what ‘mental arithmetic’ means. People who are good at maths will tell you they can see numbers in their mind’s eye. Perhaps Bridget Phillipson would be interested in steering a change.

We should be checking every 4-5-year-old – it only takes seconds to check and minutes to teach the skill. Why don’t we tell every parent and teach it as a simple “how to” skill that everyone can use? It can’t do any harm.

Many people are literally terrified of numbers as they make no sense to them. And the more stressed you are the faster the numbers jumble up, just like literacy.

These are some of the symptoms of not having good still mental images of numbers:

  • Difficulty remembering how numbers are written, with numbers reversed or rotated, like 6 and 9..
  • Problems with estimating and counting.
  • Poor memory for simple maths facts, like the area of a circle.
  • Difficulties understanding mathematical symbols.
  • Fast moving mental images can also encourage numbers and symbols to rotate, e.g. 6 turns into 9 and + into x.
  • Problems counting backwards
  • Problems remembering shapes.
  • Confusion with similar looking numbers and directions, e.g. 92 or 29.
  • There can be a lot of words in maths that will trouble poor readers, e.g. of, times, percent, etc
  • A hundred squares and multiplication tables can put neurodivergent students into sensory overload.
  • Some students who use mental imagery are so fast they just know the answer and really struggle to show the workings out; don’t we trust these children?
  • Algebra can be meaningless, especially for object visualisers, e.g. 2x+3y. But to help them consider x to mean cats and y to mean dogs it is easy to visualise 2 cats + 3 dogs and you can’t make cats into dogs or dogs into cats.
  • Why teach students to use number triangles and don’t check they can visualise them?
  • Those students who are visual thinkers, may never have thought of putting numbers in their pictures!

It is very easy to learn the skill to visualise numbers and to learn how to teach others, take a look at

For those who want to know “why”numbers are the shapes they are, teach them the origin of numbers. This can also help with counting:

I have a maths degree and without visualising numbers it would have been impossible, I am a spatial-visualiser.

My name is Olive Hickmott, I am a health and learning coach, specialising in working with neurodivergent students. I would be pleased to support you in any way I can.
You are welcome to contact me
Here you will find my learning platform for some of my training programmes and free live webinars
You will find other useful information and Practitioner Training at
Here is my YouTube channel for more free resources:
My latest books are:
The Elephants in the Classroom: using every student’s natural power of Mental Imagery to enhance learning: Neurodiversity through the lens of mental Imagery.
Bridges to Success – How to transform Learning Difficulties

#olivehickmott #visualthinking #empoweringlearning #neurodivergent #maths #rishisunak #primeminister #bridgetphillipson


About olivehickmott

I am a Forensic Learning coach, showing people how they can improve their own learning and change their health. Working with creative neurodivergent students is a joy, as they learn new skills to overcome many of their learning challenges.
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1 Response to Visual Thinking 101_5 Taking the fear out of maths

  1. Maria says:

    Dear Olive,

    I am so glad you are offering your Visual Thinking 101 series. So many people will benefit from your insights about Visual Thinkers.

    Last weekend I met two people who are visual thinkers— a 90-year-old gentleman with dyslexia and a young man in his mid-thirties. When I asked them if they think in pictures, they were shocked and responded: “Of course, don’t you?”

    I am continuing with my English grammar project, and I have started to design online English grammar classes with Visual Thinkers in mind. I will keep you posted, and once I have completed a few sessions, I will email them to you for your review and feedback.

    Meanwhile, I look forward to talking with you during your January 16th Zoom meeting.

    Best, Meta

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