Preventing Math Anxiety

In a recent segment, the New Tech City podcast presented a rather superficial analysis of the topic of “math anxiety”, with the host exploring research to alleviate her fears of the subject using video games and “power poses”.

Or something like that. The show is something of a muddle that also ties in a TED talk on body language and studies showing the relatively small percentage of women involved in math-related careers. Missing, however, was any serious consideration of why people learn to be afraid of the subject.

Math anxiety is a learned behavior, not something dependent on gender, inherited traits or psychological disorders. It is directly related to how the subject is taught in most K12 schools. Someone in the program even acknowledges that dislike of math often begins around the 6th grade, which is probably right around the time most kids are getting their 1000th worksheet.

As a recent op-ed in the LA Times points out, we are largely still working from a basic curriculum that is nearly 1000 years old, one that emphasizes learning the basic mechanical algorithms of arithmetic and geometry over any real understanding of mathematical concepts and their real-world applications.

Especially in elementary grades, students are trapped in a highly repetitive program of studies,1 while banning almost all hand-held computing devices that can do the same work far more efficiently. And ignoring the fact that even young children can grasp advanced mathematical concepts when given the opportunity.

In middle and high school, students are run through the same gauntlet as many, many prior generations starting with Algebra, moving on to Geometry, pointed straight at Calculus, again with a heavy emphasis on the process and providing few chances to view the underlying structure and to apply it. Other than extremely artificial ones like the classic two trains leaving from different stations and that damn supernatural fly moving back and forth between them.

I’ve heard many educational “experts” claim it’s economically critical to the US for kids to study more math (along with the other hallowed pieces of STEM) and that we must do a better job of teaching the subject. But continuing to present the subject in the static, boring way we have for centuries ignores this simple observation from the math professor author of the LA Times piece.

If we are to give students the right tools to navigate an increasingly math-driven world, we must teach them early on that mathematics is not just about numbers and how to solve equations but about concepts and ideas.

If we made that change, I’d bet in a few decades we would see the tragic epidemic that is math anxiety all but wiped away. Maybe even have fewer suckers wasting money on lottery tickets.


  1. Many publishers call this “cyclical” learning but the kids recognize that it’s just the same crap they did last year with a few new things added.

More Than Delivering Content

Larry Cuban recently posted a commentary on MOOCs about three years after their introduction into the education hype machine, and offers three reasons why they will not revolutionize higher education.

All are good observations but I think number two also explains why they and other mass teaching platforms won’t revolutionize K12 schools.

The fundamental error in policymaker thinking is that teaching is solely delivering subject-matter to students. There is far more to teaching that content delivery such as creating a learning culture in the classroom, organizing lessons involving students in tasks that build understanding of what is supposed to be learned, and applying and practicing newly-learned knowledge and skills.

There aren’t many K12 MOOCs (yet) but we still have any number of highly-lauded subject-matter delivery systems promoted by billionaires and politicians, like Khan Academy, that are also neither revolutionary or effective, and do little or nothing to build a classroom learning culture.

Just my observation.

Essential Skepticism

I’ve always considered myself a skeptic, but have been a little fuzzy on how to explain to people what that means. Certainly I have a set of beliefs and convictions but always try to stay open to new information that may cause me to revise them. And I’ve certainly changed my mind about things over the years.

In a new joint project between the Huntington Post and the TED organization1, the editor of Skeptic Magazine2 addresses that question of what skepticism is and what being a skeptic means to him.

Skepticism is not “seek and ye shall find,” but “seek and keep an open mind.” But what does it mean to have an open mind? It is to find the essential balance between orthodoxy and heresy, between a total commitment to the status quo and the blind pursuit of new ideas, between being open-minded enough to accept radical new ideas and so open-minded that your brains fall out. Skepticism is about finding that balance. Here is a definition of skepticism:

Skepticism is the rigorous application of science and reason to test the validity of any and all claims.

He continues on to talk about having a “Baloney Detection Kit”, inspired by Carl Sagan, “which consists of a list of questions to ask when encountering any claim”. It’s a good list but certainly not a new idea.

I first encountered the concept of “crap detecting” in Neil Postman’s wonderful 1969 book Teaching as a Subversive Activity3. And he borrowed the idea from Ernest Hemingway who told an interviewer that “to be a great writer a person must have a built-in, shockproof crap detector.”

Here in the internet age, Howard Rhiengold carries forward the concept and preaches that the skills of crap detecting are even more important as we rely on the web for information.  

However, whether you call it “crap detecting” (my preference), “baloney detecting”, or simply skepticism, I agree with Postman’s view that this is an “essential survival strategy and the essential function of the schools in today’s world”.

At least it should be. The centerpiece of every curriculum should be to help kids understand how to question the world around them, not in a cynical way or simply to be contrary, but to clarify for themselves what is worth their time and what is crap.


1 This association may give the Post a little more credibility but I’m not sure it enhances the reputation of TED.

2 One more publication I didn’t know existed.

3 The book is still in print but you can download the full text from here (pdf).

Good Idea

This sign in an elementary art room is supposed to tell kids how to use a paper towel to clean up their messes.

Good Idea

I thought it sounds like a good philosophy for teachers at all levels to help their students learn.

Redesigning Teach

Studio 360 is a fun, interesting public radio program produced at WNYC in New York and focusing on the arts and popular culture.

Occasionally they hire graphic design firms to re-imagine the imagery for a part of that culture. This time around they decided to redesign teaching, or at least the graphic representation of teaching, and the results are bright, interesting, modern and, at least for me, extremely compelling.

293 1326817412

Although you can quibble with the use of school-bus yellow (and some did in the program’s comment section), this work is still many steps up from any illustration using the nth variation on an Apple. Take a look at all the results and, especially if you’re interested in the creative process of design, listen to the discussion with the designers.

I couldn’t find any indication that they are releasing this work under a Creative Commons license but I certainly hope so.

Whacking at Math

In a recent post, Seth Godin asks Are you doing math or arithmetic?

I have enormous respect for mathematicians. They’re doing work on the edge, a cross between art and science and music.

Arithmeticians, not so much. They are merely whacking at a calculator, doing repetitive work better done by a computer or someone cheaper.

That last sentence accurately describes much of our K12 “math” curriculum, including Algebra.

Except that most of the time, we have the kids whacking away without calculators.

No Evidence for Learning Styles

Over the past couple of decades that I’ve been involved in educational professional development, one of the key concepts pushed has related to learning styles. This is the idea that some kids are verbal learners while others are visual types and still others kinesthetic and that we need to adjust our instruction specifically to reach each of those groups.

However, on a short segment from NPR’s Morning Edition today, several psychologists have looked at the research behind the theory of learning styles and found no basis for saying that teachers should tailor their instruction to different kinds of learners.

When he reviewed studies of learning styles, he found no scientific evidence backing up the idea. “We have not found evidence from a randomized control trial supporting any of these,” he says, “and until such evidence exists, we don’t recommend that they be used.”

While the research may or may not be valid (always read any research, especially involving humans, with a large dose of skepticism), I still believe that both kids and adults have styles of learning they prefer and are most comfortable with. It doesn’t mean they can’t learn any other way, just that they would rather not, given the option.

However, that doesn’t mean we should specifically adapt instruction for each group of learners. Instead we should be teaching our students how to adapt their learning abilities to the different situations that they’re likely to encounter throughout their lives. Certainly how to read a book, but also how to consume and understand other types of media, as well as how to create them.

Late in the piece, one speaker notes that, while there’s no research to back up the concept of learning styles, there is plenty of evidence showing that using a variety of approaches and regularly changing instructional styles, does benefit all students.

Which only makes sense since I learned early in my career that teaching the same way all the time is boring, both for the kids and for me.

Does Teaching Make You Smarter?

Maybe not (whatever “smarter” means), but the practice of teaching certainly helps a person understand their subject much better.

Which is essentially the conclusion of a new study summarized on a recent episode of the 60-Second Science podcast.

Now a study finds that grad students who also teach show significant improvement in written research proposals, compared with grad students with no teaching requirement.

Differences in overall written quality among the students could not account for the results, because only specific skills among those analyzed showed improvement as a function of the teaching experience. So teaching may make STEM grad students better scientists. Not to mention better teachers.

I wonder if asking kids in grades below graduate school (like high school) to do more teaching and less being taught at, might make them smarter.

Or at least give them a better understanding of the math and science we want them to learn.

No Question: Time to Kill the Lab!

There are many reasons why I’m looking forward to the bring-your-own-device project we will be trying in some of our schools this fall. One of the biggest is that maybe – just maybe – it will lead to us finally killing the computer lab.

I’ve ranted about this before, and the conversation usually stirs up a lot of strong feelings, but the more I see how they are used in schools, the more convinced I am that we will never get to the point where computing devices are, in the words of someone wiser than me, “like oxygen – ubiquitous, necessary, and invisible” unless the labs disappear and are replaced with devices that are available to students anytime, anywhere.

Those feelings were reinforced in the past few weeks in discussions with some of our trainers as they plan for the new schools year. Especially concerning one elementary school where the teachers are lobbying the administration to use the lab as a drop off point for their students in order to increase their planning time. In the same way music, art, PE, the library and other “pull out” programs are used (also incorrectly).

Now I certainly believe the teachers in our elementary schools need more time to plan their lessons. All teachers need regular, meaningful opportunities to plan, collaborate with their peers, and to reflect on their practice.

However, using technology in this way (and it’s not at all uncommon in other schools around here as well) only reinforces the idea that computer use is for special occasions, a nice-to-have extra, and not especially necessary. Computers are something we do, not a tool to improve learning. A once-in-a-while treat, not oxygen.

If we get to the point where a large number of students are bringing their own devices, labs full of identically configured equipment becomes unnecessary and even impossible to justify.

And, with any luck, are removed from the school experience forever.

Do You Have To Lecture Me?

In a recent post, Larry Cuban offers a compact and interesting overview of two instructional mainstays, used by teachers for millennia: lecturing and questioning. And he believes both will be around for centuries more to come.

They are flexible and adaptable teaching techniques. With all of the concern for student-centered inquiry and using tougher questions based upon Bloom’s taxonomy, one enduring function of schooling is to transfer academic knowledge and skills (both technical and social) to the next generation. Social beliefs in transmitting knowledge as a primary purpose of schooling remain strong and abiding. [emphasis mine]

I would question his “one enduring function of schooling”, but that’s something to rant about another time.

When it comes to lecturing, the people who are best at it go far beyond just transmitting information.  They weave stories, entertain, and inspire. They are the people who deliver keynotes at conferences, offer motivational seminars, present TED talks, and sometimes give political stump speeches.

That Huge Lecture Theatre!

Unfortunately, far too few of the really good ones are teaching in high school and college classrooms. And, when it comes to lecturing as teaching technique, I’m not sure the technique has ever been all that effective for learning.

Although Cuban only fleetingly mentions the impact of evolving technologies over the centuries, the tools developed in just the past decade or so have dramatically decreased the necessity of using lecture for instruction, certainly in high schools.

The best presentations by those best lecturers can be easily archived and used by anyone in any class setting.

More importantly, those with something to say but with other skills can create compelling video and audio programs that convey information even more effectively, and entertaining and inspiring at the same time.

Cuban is probably right that the use of lecture as a teaching technique will probably continue long past the time we’re talking about 22nd century skills (which will probably start any day now :-).

However, with any luck, it will be increasingly confined to only those who do it well, while the rest of us develop our capacity to inform and communicate using the many and growing number of other instruments available.


Image: That Huge Lecture Theater! by teddy-rised on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

One Part of the Learning Puzzle

Ok, so maybe us teachers aren’t as important to good schools as everyone says we are.  Is it possible that improving teacher quality and getting rid of the bad ones won’t result in the dramatic improvements to our education system as so many politicians and education “experts” claim?

Yes, according to a “senior fellow at the non-profit Albert Shanker Institute”.

All of the research that undergirds the “trifecta” only shows that, in any given year, teachers’ effects on students’ test score gains vary widely. This line of work has served a meaningful policy purpose insofar as it has helped to convince people that teacher quality matters greatly, and efforts to improve it are worthwhile. But no one, on any “side” of the education reform debates, is arguing anything different (if they ever did).

But, as I and others have pointed out repeatedly, teachers are only one factor amongst all of the many factors that make for academically successful students. In terms of in-school effects, they are very significant – the most influential measurable variable. But the same body of research that has shown us that teachers matter – the evidence from which the “trifecta” was born – has also shown that non-school factors matter much more.

While I’m not inclined to accept the word of any kind of fellow at a Washington think tank, this column makes sense.

If you listen the people driving the education reform discussion (Duncan, Gates, Rhee, etc.), their proposals largely center around teachers: pay for performance, removing tenure, eliminating unions, firing “lower performers”.

However, what they don’t realize – or refuse to acknowledge – is that teaching and learning are very complex processes, and to take the approach that simply hiring better teachers for a school will magically produce smarter kids, is not at all realistic.  We can’t even figure out a reliable way to measure teacher quality in the first place.

Certainly finding and training good teachers is important, but we also need to seriously address questions of whether the curriculum, instructional methods, and overall goals – mostly established 50+ years ago – are appropriate for a largely non-industrial society (they’re not).  Not to mention the fact that an increasing number of our students live in poverty, are not native English speakers, and have a variety of learning challenges.

Unfortunately, the huge emphasis on this single factor tends to reinforce in the minds of many the classic school fiction of the individual teacher working in isolation to produce miracles (a myth that will be repeated this weekend on commercial television), when, in the real world, all the different pieces are very much interconnected.


Image: Rubik’s Cube from Doodlepress. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Woz on Education

Ok, so following the advice of business leaders when it comes to education hasn’t done much to improve… well, much of anything in the past couple of decades or so.

But at least Steve Wozniac, co-founder of Apple, is slightly more qualified to offer insight on education matters than the founder of another big technology company.

He actually has some experience teaching kids and has a good understanding of the difference between school and learning.

Woz was skeptical about whether sufficient change would come about anytime soon, even though most problems in our education system are well known. “My whole life, [leaders] have been talking the same way, so I don’t know how soon it will change,” he said. But change it should. “We need to teach kids how to learn.

“If you can motivate a student to want to learn, that’s so much more important that what’s in the book,” Woz continued. “I had this pastime—I fell in love with computer logic. Any fifth-grader can understand the stuff in 99 percent of digital electronics. And in fifth grade I made myself this challenge to try and design computers using less chips. So I had this challenge, and that motivated me.”

In most schools today, we challenge kids by giving them more practice tests.

Not very motivating for those fifth-graders who might be interested in learning what’s not in the book.

Not Ready For Prime Time

At The Innovative Educator, a guest writer asks the question, Are IWB’s Past Their Prime?

Unfortunately, his analysis is all about the technology itself, not about education.

In the end, schools have to weigh the facts carefully and decide how to best use technology to best serve the needs of their children. This includes examining the school culture, features of competing technologies, physical space available in the school, the school’s comfort level with varying technology models, and the total cost of ownership.

All of those factors are important to some degree, but where is the concern about how this technology is being used?

Or rather how it’s being misused.

I’ve ranted on this topic many times before, but the point still needs to be made that, even before all our recent financial problems, IWBs (interactive whiteboards) were a bad use of technology funds.

Not to mention tools that encourage bad instructional practices.

So, are IWB’s past their prime?  You could say that.

But I’m not sure they ever should have had prime space in school budgets in the first place.