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Math Anxiety – Is Math Teaching in Conflict with Math Learning? The Second Article of Three
What is it about mathematics that causes so much pain and anxiety, turmoil and strife, tears and rage? 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, like in the last 50 years. We are in 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 studying grammar, spelling, and phonics first before reading a story. If we did 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 way, which is also the latest and greatest New Math. New mathematics, of course, is only the latest approach to teaching mathematics. Mathematics 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.” This is not true. In real life, children learn in different ways. In real life, children learn at different rates. Solving problems using numbers can and should be approached from the learning preference of each child. 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 you teach mathematics? Most teachers, especially in the elementary grades, do not have time for multiple approaches and multiple skill levels. Many teachers do not have the mathematics expertise for multiple approaches because it is not necessary to teach elementary 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 vision to see the value of wrong answers. Instead, answers are marked as incorrect without investigating why. This is a missed opportunity! Incorrect answers can lead to a deeper understanding of the material. Wrong answers are an opportunity to analyze the child’s thought processes. Instead, teachers give lots and lots of worksheets, thinking that the more students do, the more they will learn. It is not uncommon for our children to be bored or confused. Is it our teachers fault? No! I blame our school system.
I’m not saying that all elementary school teachers are bad at math. Some are proficient in math, but not all. I have great respect for teachers. However, how many teachers take more than eight years to impress upon a child that they are not good at math? How many meetings are needed for eight years, 180 days a year? I can tell you from personal experience; It only takes a teacher in an instant to put this notion into a child’s head. At that moment, the teacher didn’t even realize the damage he did. Belief is a powerful thing. Negative belief is more powerful than positive belief. For my son, it was a fourth grade fractions test where he got most of the answers wrong. Except they weren’t really wrong. He did the fraction calculations correctly. Forgot to simplify the fraction. No one told him that. He thought he had done the fraction calculation wrong. In an instant, his confidence in mathematics was shaken.
At the extremes, I’ve seen kids bored to death in math while others struggle to understand it. Why do schools make everyone repeat the same lesson when only a few have not yet understood it? You can be sure that those who don’t yet understand the concept feel pressured to learn it. They start to believe that they will never make it. Doing worksheet after worksheet 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 son’s teacher to challenge her in math. This was a big mistake. All my son got was a bigger stack of worksheets. No wonder our kids hate math on both ends.
Mathematics is a process of discovery. I see learning math as a series of “Aha” moments. You struggle, struggle, struggle, then suddenly you get it and wonder why you didn’t see it before. Then practice the new skill long enough to know you have it. Then you continue. You work at your own pace with an approach to math that works best for you. This is the ideal way to learn math. This is how math should be taught. In addition, children should be given something real to practice their math skills, a real-life situation that involves using math. This shouldn’t be that hard to do. After all, math is practical. It is all around us. Play a game of Scrabble® and figure out the math to win. Don’t put aside math assignments or tests without analyzing these incorrect answers. Approach wrong answers from a discovery perspective, not a “let’s rectify your wrong thinking”. You’ll be surprised what you’ll 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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