What is math anxiety and how does it block children from learning?

learning math

The root of students’ low performance in Math may be psychological.

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Math anxiety is the student’s lack of trust in their ability while trying to learn math or doing math exercises. Is a psychological problem rather than a learning disability, but it can have the same impact regardless.

A student with math anxiety can experience from nervousness to memory loss from the things they already learned, triggering a low-performance cycle. The viewpoint of math being difficult and that only students with superior talents, special abilities or peculiar interests can master it, turns math learning into sort of an elite club which leaves out the majority of the students’ population.

The situation is so prevalent that the Math Anxiety Fund, in London, was created to help children and adults who suffer from this psychological problem. The English association says that 25% of 11 years old children are below the line of expected performance, most likely because math anxiety; more than a third of students between 15 and 24 years old get nervous when they have to show they work in math class.

There are enough people with this condition that we have to start to wonder if this is not a learning challenge but a weak teaching point.

Math is an exact science, teaching it is not

The idea of math being hard doesn’t come only from low-performance students; it is also related to the way we teach it, according to data from the Math Anxiety Fund, 80% of adults don't know the term. This knowledge limitation often causes that teachers identify low-performance students as a sign of learning disability when it could have a more straightforward explanation.

With maths, there’s a right or a wrong answer, and that’s why people can feel so anxious – they’re scared of looking foolish.

Celia Hoyles, a math professor at the University College of London (UCL), describes the root of the fear that triggers math anxiety and calls to reflect on the dangers of association errors or mistakes with the lack of ability.

Math, like any other field of knowledge, cannot be mastered with a focus that bases on perfection, but in constant work and mental openness to keep learning when we get it wrong or new information about something we thought we know entirely arises.

Under this context, math teaching and learning is a social discipline, not an exact science. Maybe math exercises and operations can only be solved with logic and accuracy, but to teach and learn how to do it, we need skills like communication, creativity, and understanding. What solutions can we make up based on a humanistic and flexible approach to math?

Numbers have a human purpose too

Am I going to use this later in life? This is the most repeated question in the history of math lessons; equations, fractions, written math problems… No teacher can teach these without at least one student popping the question. It can seem like a casual question, one that shows that students have no interest in the class, but it does hide a valuable message between the lines, and we as teachers must be able to read it.

When students ask about the usefulness of maths, they are not questioning the value of the subject, not even its practicality; they are asking how they can connect with it. A vast majority of people on careers that rely heavily on math are there because they discovered what math meant to them personally; most of them did that on their own.

We can give the example of the sociologist who started getting A in her math tests after she realized the math was what she needed to understand the statistics behind social problems like gender or race inequality. Or the game programmer who worked double hours to understand math because he knew it was the basis to unlock logic and code. What about the civil engineer who went from the last place in class to honor grades because she discovered math was needed to build the durable bridges she loved to draw. All of them, as well as us, learn because a subject connects with us at a cognitive emotional and intellectual level.

As teachers, to say that math is hard enables the distance that leaves students unable to connect or find a purpose for the subject. Consequently, the number of people with medium and high performance who could pursue a career in math reduces and cuts down the number of teachers with the skills and will to pass on their knowledge, perpetuating the cycle.

Math teaching can benefit from a humanistic approach, that focuses less on timed tests, and more about its visual or musical attributes, for example, visual patterns and rhythm can be excellent resources to understand math’s mechanics.

But the most important thing is to understand that the exercise of math is about being ingenious, creative, determined, concentrated, and capable to connect the numbers with purposes that means something to us. To understand that math has never been the end but the means to understand and measure everything in our world. Perhaps if we see it that way and not as this foreign and hard subject which gives us headaches, students and teachers would have less trouble inviting it into the classroom.