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.