Shattering Five Math Fear Myths
Students who say they suffer from “math fear” usually have the following symptoms: Upon entering their math classroom, even on the first day, they panic and feel immediately unsuccessful. Feelings of nervousness, frustration, annoyance, even anger are felt. Even when offered help or opportunities to get assistance, the student remains passive and afraid. On tests these students feel like they are alone in their suffering; that they are the only ones who are struggling; that they will mess up even the simplest problems. These students have lost their confidence, and have often felt this way for many years. What is perpetuating this problem, and what can parents and teachers do about this?
The problem of math fear is universal. Yes, many students come to class with skill gaps in the curriculum and poor training in study and test-taking skills. But it is mostly a mental block and self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuated by those who care for the struggling student the most: parents, relatives, and teachers who show a negative attitude about their past challenges in math class. The clue to the power of the self-imposed block is when the student travels to his next class and immediately feels better and more confident, and is glad the torturous hour of math is over. For most kids with math fear, this is the reality. Why the sudden relief, the sense of going back to normal, and the instant sense that everything is better?
Math fear is simply an emotional condition, extended through many days, weeks, and years and blown up in the student’s mind as being something unrecoverable, innate, and permanent. One of the first steps in dealing with this strong emotion is to examine the myths about math in general that create mistaken ideas about how math concepts and ideas fit into our world.
Math Myth #1: Only a lucky few are born with math ability
We all accept the fact that some people are born with the right type of body, skills, and athletic ability to become professional athletes, right? Does this mean that those of us who are not “naturally gifted” athletically shouldn’t try to play tennis, join a softball team, throw the football? Of course not. The difference is one of degree. Sports still can play an active part of our lives, in fact should be important to all of us for reasons of health and social and emotional well-being.
If a student feels they are not talented in calculations, “getting numbers”, or thinking mathematically, do they just give up? No, and it obviously leads to a discussion of learning to persevere when it comes to the obstacles and challenges in our career as students, not quit when the going gets tough.
Math Myth #2: There is only one answer, and this is the goal of mathematics
Sure, at the simplest levels of calculation there has to be a unique answer: 2 X 4 has to be only 8. As we move on to upper, more important levels of mathematics, these memorized calculations are only tools to get at the true goals in the realm of math: learning how to measure and analyze our world, and solve problems using mathematical tools. Again, I would argue that when solving systems of equations (simultaneous), there must be only one solution. But this is just learning the tool; the process of solving such a problem is a procedure that becomes a higher level strategy to solve even more complicated situations. An experienced math teacher or professor should delight in students who can show creative ways of solving problems different from the way it is shown in the textbook. The key is to use math skills and algorithms to practice your thinking abilities, and improve them!
Math Myth #3: Girls are not good at math and shouldn’t pursue math-related careers
Although this idea has faded a bit in recent generations, the idea that girls can’t think mathematically is still out there at the family dinner table, school classrooms, and hallways. Of course, the female brain is wired differently than the male one, but mathematical ability remains one that has to be practiced and nurtured over time, regardless of gender.
At the typical family gathering, do people laughingly admit that they are illiterate, and have always struggled with reading? Probably not, yet there seems to be some camaraderie when someone mentions their challenges in math class or math fear. It tends to be accepted as normal, and anyone, especially a girl who thrives mathematically must be unusually talented. There is also no truth to the rumor that girls are somehow less feminine if they enjoy math or excel in it.
Math Myth #4: Success in math means you can get the answers instantly
At the earlier grades, when learning addition facts or multiplication tables, of course speed is important. These are the building block skills necessary at the foundational level. In the middle school or high school classrooms where the faster thinkers are celebrated or minimal time is allotted for slower learners to respond, this just shows poor teaching. A good instructor should allow time for exploring other solutions and finding alternate methods.
In fact, an effective math lesson needs to celebrate creative problem solving. This involves conversation, brainstorming, and group discussion. Another argument for women being more suited to higher levels of mathematics!
Math Myth #5: Math literacy can be avoided and is not important
Again, the scene centers on your dinner table. . . If you mention your struggles with yesterday’s math lesson or bad score on a quiz, the stories come out again. Knowing nods of sympathy, and opinions about how only some people are gifted enough. You hear comments about how you just need to get through it in order to graduate and then you can spend your time doing more “important” work. The implications are, of course, that math is something to endure, not something to learn to improve on and even enjoy.
The idea of math literacy is an important one. Few people argue that everyone needs to be able to read and write, but there is the fuzzy notion that mathematical competence is optional. If a student does well in Algebra classes in high school, studies have shown that they will far excel in college experiences and be more successful in life. This represents a minimal competency landmark. Everyone should strive at the least to pass algebra classes in high school and college as a jump-start for further success in the academic and working world.
The algebraic skills of creating abstract representations of problems and solving them (equations, graphs, proofs, and hypothetical models) is extremely important in life. Whether researching the best place to order carpet, construct an addition for the house, or do a cost-analysis for your business, mathematical skills as well as mathematical thinking and strategies are involved.
Overcoming math fear in children and adults is more about being aware of the myths and personal biases of other people’s beliefs. Solving this challenge is not putting more time into studying or banging your head against the wall in your study area. Mathematics is a competency area in school that signals your readiness to enter the working and academic world and be successful. It is not optional, magical, or impossible. It takes perseverance, patience, and a willingness to seek out help. Many times math anxiety becomes math avoidance, supported by the ignorance of close friends and family, but it can be overcome!
In part 2 of this article series, I examine how to deal with homework issues as they relate to a student who is feeling math fear. I will answer the challenges of what to do when a student feels like he can’t understand the textbook, doesn’t know how to even get through last night’s homework, and can’t organize for the next day or ask for help. Knowing how to deal with homework sessions for the parents and student is the first step in finding the cure for this common problem.
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