Math Anxiety – Is Math Teaching in Conflict with Math Learning?
What is it about math that causes such pain and anxiety, turmoil and fighting, tears and anger? Is it math or is it the method that we employ to teach math to our children? Personally, I don’t think it is math. People have been learning math for hundreds of year. Math anxiety is a recent phenomenon, like in the last 50 years. We’re into the second generation of math anxiety. So let’s look at the method we use to teach math. I have found that the standard approach to teaching math today is equivalent to teaching reading by first studying grammar, spelling and phonetic before you ever read a story. If we did this to teach reading, no one would ever want to learn how to read. So why do we teach math this way? Why is our approach to math rigid and artificial? I don’t know! Our schools preach that there is only one way to learn math. That is their way, which also happens to be the latest and greatest New Math. New math, of course, is just the latest approach to teaching math. Math is as old as the hills and is the same as it was in the beginning. They say “This is the best way for all students to learn math.” That’s not true. In real life, children learn in a variety of ways. In real life, children learn at different rates. Solving problems using numbers can be and should be approached from the individual child’s learning preference. If they can be flexible in teaching reading, why can’t they be flexible in teaching math?
Is being flexible in how we teach math practical? Most teachers, especially in the elementary grades, don’t have the time for multiple approaches and multiple skill levels. Many teachers don’t have the expertise in math for multiple approaches because it is not required in order to teach elementary school. Some even have anxiety about teaching math. They’re given an instruction manual and an answer sheet and are told to teach. Many teachers don’t even have the insight to see the value in wrong answers. Instead the answers are marked wrong with no investigation as to why. This is a lost opportunity! Wrong answers can lead to a deeper understanding of the material. Wrong answers are an opportunity to analyze the child’s thinking processes. Instead, the teachers give lots and lots of worksheets, thinking the more the students do, the more they’ll learn. It’s no wonder our children are either bored or confused. Is this our teachers’ fault? No! I blame our school system.
I’m not saying all elementary school teachers are bad at math. Some are proficient in math, but not all. I have a great respect for teachers. None the less, how many teachers does it take over eight years to give a child the impression that he’s no good in math? How many encounters does it take over eight years, 180 days per year? I can tell you from personal experience; it only takes one teacher in one instant to set this notion in a child’s head. In this instant, the teacher was not even aware of the damage he did. Belief is a powerful thing. Negative belief is more powerful than positive belief. For my child, it was a fourth grade fractions test where she got most of the answers wrong. Except that they were not really wrong. She did the fraction calculations correctly. She just forgot to simplify the fraction. No one told her that. She thought she had done the fraction calculating wrong. In an instant, her confidence in math was shaken.
On the extremes, I have seen children bored to death in math while others struggle to understand. Why are the schools making everyone repeat the same lesson when only a few don’t get it yet? You can be sure that those who still are not grasping the concept are feeling pressured to learn it. They are beginning to believe that they will never get it. Doing worksheet after worksheet is not helping them. And the other children are tired of doing worksheet after worksheet. Give everyone a break. Let the children who understand the concept move on to the next concept. Once I asked my child’s teacher to challenge her in math. This was a big mistake. All my child got was a larger stack of worksheets. It’s no wonder that our children hate math on both extremes.
Math is a process of discovery. I see learning math as a series of “Aha” moments. You struggle, struggle, struggle, then all of a sudden you get it and you wonder why you did not see it before. Then you practice the new skill, just long enough to know you’ve got it. Then you move on. You work at your own pace with an approach to math that works best for you. That’s the ideal way to learn math. That’s how math should be taught. In addition, children should be given something real to practice their math skills on, a real life situation that involves using math. This should not be that hard to do. After all math is practical. It is all around us. Play a game of Scrabble® and discover the math involved to win. Don’t let math work or tests be put aside without analyzing those wrong answers. Approach the wrong answers from a view of discovery, not ‘we are going to straighten out your wrong thinking.’ You’ll be amazed at what you will discover about your child if you let your child show you how he got those wrong answers. Have fun with math. Math is basic. Everyone can do Math!
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