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"I'm No Good at Maths": Maths Anxiety

by Beverley Paine

An article about 'maths anxiety' came across my desk today and I read it with interest, if not a little surprised at finding there is actually a term for the distress many people feel when confronted with the need to perform calculations. You can read the whole article here: http://www.zorbitsmath.com/7-shocking-facts-math-anxiety/ . If you're like me, you probably already have an idea of what it's going to say and will skip to the bottom of the article to find out what can be done about quelling this unreasonable anxiety. Anxiety undermines our working memory, the bit that helps us place things in context and solve problems. It's puts a brake on being able to think clearly and to focus on the task at hand as well as drawing the information (knowledge and skills) from our long term memory to help us perform those tasks. Many of us develop avoidance tactics early in life to protect us from experiencing severe and mentally crippling stress and when it comes to maths knowledge and understanding that sadly translates into quite an impact on the choices we can make throughout life.

I was surprised to learn that maths anxiety affects the 'brightest' and 'smartest' students the most. I'm not a fan of these terms - they're the kind of comparative terms that I find unnecessary and distracting. And when an article refers to people in this way I realise that the author is writing from the perspective of the old educational paradigms, one that I left behind decades ago because it's not helpful to advancing the cause of education. Wouldn't it be awesome if we focused on the issue without the need to grade people in this competitive way?

I can understand where the author is coming from with this point, but surely someone who totally avoids doing any kind of mathematic calculation and shuns thinking mathematically because of early extremely stressful experiences is most affected by maths anxiety? Their early formal maths education is so mismatched to their learning styles and needs connections are never made. Despite this the education system continues to offer up more of the same approaches and methods that give rise to the stress.

Little children given time to play, encouraged to be creative and imaginative, and who are allowed and invited to participate in the everyday lives and activities of their parents and older siblings and their community in meaningful and nurturing ways pick up maths skills and concepts informally as they use maths to help them make sense of the world and achieve their objectives. I found talking about the processes I use to mentally calculate as I shopped, built, created, planned, cooked, cleaned - any and all activities - helped my youngest develop maths skills without any fuss or stress. And if formal maths processes were needed to calculate or solve complex problems we'd find the appropriate maths tool and learn how to use it. In the absence of arbitrary time frames in which to learn this or that, in the absence of a competitive constructed maths curriculum, his mathematically ability developed.

Contrast this to his older sister: I taught her maths from the age of six using school methods. I was proud of her ability to calculate sums in her head without seeming to think them through, celebrating her natural maths ability. But after four years of school maths she definitely showed acute signs of maths anxiety: avoidance (not wanting to begin the lesson), distraction (wanting a drink or something to eat), distress (fidgeting, crying) and confusion (blank face, staring at the page for ages). In desperation - because my daughter no longer considered herself 'good' at maths - we put away the books and I let her learn in the way that she had before six years of age - before we began homeschooling her. She hasn't fully recovered her confidence in her natural maths ability. Would she have pursued a career that used her original maths ability if I had matched her learning activities to her learning style and needs earlier? Who knows... It's one of those questions we can never really answer. She's happy doing what she does and knows that at any time she can learn whatever she needs. I'm glad I had the smarts to stop pushing an approach to learning maths that was causing her obvious distress at the time.

It's obvious to me that children who aren't encouraged to consider themselves natural mathematicians (we all are, it's one of those socialisation tools we need to belong in a group and advance the health and economic well-being of ourselves as well of the group, much more so than reading and writing) from an early age, and are then introduced to school methods of maths instruction, are more likely to be affected by maths anxiety. The competitive environment of a classroom as well as the competitive structure of the curriculum, in which children are under pressure to perform particular tasks within a set timeframe, hinder learning for most children. But the problem starts earlier than school: young children discouraged from exploring the world on their own terms are more likely to experience the greatest level of maths anxiety. Unlike their 'brighter' peers they'd simply give up, avoid doing the maths task (a bit like me), muted memories of being terrified of failing stopping them in their tracks or dredging up unwanted feelings of confusion.

I'm not sure I agree with the article's premise that it is difficult to catch up when affected early by maths anxiety. That all depends on how overcoming the problem is approached: more of the same will definitely make it harder to learn those maths skills necessary to advance in one's career, profession or desired pathway through life. Learning maths naturally (based on personal need which brings with it high motivation) guided by someone who can sympathetically answer questions, point to learning aids or resources that will help works for anyone at any age. It's the way people have learned for millennia. Another successful approach to overcoming issues with reluctance to work or think mathematically is attaching oneself to someone who is passionate about maths, who loves, breathes and dreams maths (works effectively for other areas in life too). It would be helpful, but not necessary, for this person to have empathy for the student. What the student won't need is whatever method he or she was originally presented with to learn the same skills and materials that currently send him or her into confusion and give rise to anxiety.

And that's what this article emphasises: the way to debug maths anxiety is remove whatever conditions are causing anxiety or distress in the first place. And the early this is done the better. Identify the learning style and needs of the child and work with that. Plus, make sure that you cover the basics thoroughly in a concrete way before moving on. I remember being chastised as a young student for counting on my fingers, but seriously, if this helps me confidently learn how to calculate let me use it - for as long as it is useful! And offer me an abacus so I can push beads around, and then show me how to use it properly. Some people learn best kinesthetically (need to move and touch things). Not recognising and utilizing our individual learning preferences and styles is the original cause of our maths anxiety.

Assessment is noted in the article too. As a home educator I found the best way to approach assessment is for it to be continuous and in context with everyday life. Checking that children understand something or can do something is something that parents naturally do from birth - we're primed to do that because we really want our children to grow and learn and develop. Being attentive and observant, noticing how and what my children are learning and when, keeping some kind of basic record of this, is a natural and effortless assessment process - and best of all, because I'm doing it and not imposing some kind of testing or checking regime on my children, they aren't really aware of it at all. No stress, no fuss, no anxiety. And it's the approach I took with my youngest child and I'm happy to say it worked.

My maths skills haven't improved since my schooling days but my attitude towards maths has: I'm no longer afraid of doing maths or consider myself a maths dunce. I know I can use whatever tools I can find to help me perform mathematically if I need to do so, and learn how to use them if necessary. I no longer feel paralysed by my confusion and past beliefs about my ability. I understand that maths is a tool that helps me achieve my goals as I make my way through life, not a judgment on my intellectual ability or who I can be or what career I can pursue.

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Together with the support of my family, my aim is to help parents educate their children in stress-free, nurturing environments. In addition to building and maintaing this website, I continue to create and manage local and national home educating networks, help to organise conferences and camps, as well as write for, edit and produce newsletters, resource directories and magazines. I am an active supporter of national, state, regional and local home education groups.

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