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Math Anxiety – Is Math Teaching in Conflict with Math Learning? The Second Article of Three
What is it about math that causes so much pain and anxiety, turmoil and fighting, tears and anger? Is it math or is it the method we use to teach math to our children? Personally, I don’t think it’s math. People have been learning math for hundreds of years. Math anxiety is a recent phenomenon, as it has been in the past 50 years. We are in the second generation of math anxiety. So let’s look at the method we use to teach mathematics. I have found that the standard approach to teaching math today is to teach reading by first studying grammar, spelling, and phonics before reading a story. If we were doing this to teach reading, no one would ever want to learn to read. So why do we teach math this way? Why is our approach to mathematics rigid and artificial? I do not know! Our schools preach that there is only one way to learn math. This is their path, which also happens to be the latest and greatest New Math. The new mathematics, of course, is only the latest approach to teaching mathematics. Math is as old as the hills and is the same as when it started. They say “This is the best way for all students to learn math.” It’s not true. In real life, children learn in different ways. In real life, children learn at different rates. Problem solving using numbers can and should be approached according to each child’s learning preferences. If they can be flexible in teaching reading, why can’t they be flexible in teaching math?
Is it practical to be flexible in the way we teach mathematics? Most teachers, especially at the primary level, do not have the time to adopt multiple approaches and multiple skill levels. Many teachers lack the math expertise for multiple approaches, as it is not necessary to teach in primary school. Some even have anxiety about teaching math. They are given an instruction manual and answer sheet and told to teach. Many teachers don’t even have the insight to see the value of wrong answers. Instead, the answers are marked false without any investigation as to why. This is a missed opportunity! Wrong answers can lead to a deeper understanding of the material. Wrong answers provide an opportunity to analyze the child’s thinking processes. Instead, teachers hand out piles of worksheets, thinking the more students do, the more they will learn. It’s no wonder our kids are bored or confused. Is it the fault of our teachers? Nope! I blame our school system.
I’m not saying that all primary school teachers are bad at math. Some are proficient in mathematics, but not all. I have great respect for teachers. However, how many teachers does it take in eight years to make a child feel like he’s not good at math? How many meetings does it take in eight years, 180 days a year? I can tell you from personal experience; it only takes one teacher in an instant to put this notion in a child’s head. At that moment, the teacher was not even aware of the damage he had caused. 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 they weren’t really wrong. She did the fraction calculations correctly. She just forgot to simplify the fraction. Nobody told him that. She thought she had miscalculated the fraction. In an instant, his confidence in mathematics was shaken.
At the extremes, I’ve seen kids bored out of math while others struggled to understand. Why do schools force everyone to repeat the same lesson when only a few still don’t understand it? You can be sure that those who don’t yet grasp the concept feel compelled to learn it. They begin to believe that they will never get it. Doing spreadsheet after spreadsheet doesn’t help them. And the other kids are tired of doing worksheet after worksheet. Give everyone a break. Let children who understand the concept move on to the next concept. I once asked my child’s teacher to challenge her in math. It was a big mistake. All my kid got was a bigger stack of worksheets. It’s no wonder our kids hate math at both extremes.
Mathematics 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 wonder why you haven’t seen it before. Then you practice the new skill, just long enough to know you have it. Then you move on. You work at your own pace with an approach to mathematics that suits you best. It’s the perfect way to learn math. This is how math should be taught. Additionally, children should be given something real to practice their math skills, a real-life situation that involves the use of math. It shouldn’t be that hard to do. After all, math is practical. It’s all around us. Play a game of Scrabble® and learn the math needed to win. Don’t let work or math tests be pushed aside without analyzing those wrong answers. Approach wrong answers from the point of view of discovery, not “we’ll straighten out your wrong thinking.” You’ll be amazed at what you’ll find out about your child if you let them show you how they got those wrong answers. Have fun with math. The math is basic. Anyone can do math!
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