The word ‘math’ conjures up a lot of different feelings in adults. Some have always liked the challenge that math offers. But for far too many, ‘math’ brings up negative emotions. It’s the reason why the sentence, “I was never any good at math” is so widely accepted.
But it doesn’t need to be that way. In fact, it shouldn’t be that way. We actually have more control about our feelings towards math than we my think. Since math anxiety (in extreme cases called math phobia) usually begins before adulthood, I’m going to discuss this from the perspective of a parent or teacher of young children with the ultimate goal of preventing the anxiety from developing in the first place.
(Note: There are techniques to use for those who may already find themselves victim to math anxiety. We’ll go over strategies to overcome this in a later discussion.)
For kids to feel good about their math ability, they need to develop confidence. Confident kids believe they can; confident kids believe in themselves.
So how do we develop this confidence in our kids? There are two main factors involved: attitude and learning environment. We’ll discuss the learning environment next time. For now, let’s take a look at attitude….your attitude.
If you scream and jump up and down every time you see a spider in your house, you’re teaching your child that adults are afraid of spiders. It’s not that you need to develop a love for spiders. But if your goal is to raise kids who aren’t afraid of them, then you’re going to need to change the way you react when you see one. In other words, you need to change your attitude.
Kids get their clues for how to operate in the world through observing the adults in their lives. These adults have incredible influence over what gets learned even if they aren’t aware of passing anything on, like the long sigh that occurs every time one spouse asks the other to take out the garbage or get the oil changed in the car. These subtle messages don’t go unnoticed by kids. And that includes the attitude you have towards math.
So the first step to developing math confident children is to make sure you have the correct attitude. Your attitude influences their attitude. Like the spider example, you don’t need to develop a sudden love of math. It’s okay not to like something. But the way you express that dislike is very important.
Following is a list of questions to get you to reflect on your personal relationship with math. We’ll talk about some of the questions at the end, but first, read each one carefully and answer honestly. And while you’re at it, pay attention to your feelings as you read each one.
1. Do you believe that boys are better at math than girls?
2. Do you believe that someone either has the math gene or doesn’t?
3. Do you feel that you need to solve a math problem quickly?
4. Do you feel anxious when presented with a math problem in front of others? (Ex: Who wants to figure out the tip?)
5. Do you feel there is only one way to correctly solve a problem?
6. Do you easily get frustrated and give up when solving a difficult math problem?
7. Are/were you afraid of asking questions in math for fear of appearing ‘stupid’ in front of others?
8. Have you ever said, “I’m not good at math,” or something similar, out loud?
How did you do? If you answered ‘no’ to 6 or more, then you are most likely giving your children/students the guidance they need to develop confidence and succeed in math. However, if you answered ‘yes’ to four or more, then you may be passing on some attitudes that you are unaware of. These attitudes may have an impact on the potential development of math anxiety/phobia.
We’re going to explore each one of these questions on a deeper level in upcoming discussions. But to begin to get you to reflect on the impact your attitude may be having on your kids, let’s take a quick look at a few.
Do you believe that boys are better at math than girls? This belief may be culturally induced. We may have even covinced ourselves that evolution did it because men needed to be better at math. But current research on the brain doesn’t support men having a “math brain”. There’s even discussion as to whether or not men being better at spatial problems is really a result of a math brain or simply their environment. After all, boys tend to be handed trucks and blocks while girls get the baby dolls. More hands-on experiences with objects like building blocks could help hone spatial skills, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that male brains are better equipped for these than a females.
Besides, there are plenty of examples where women excel at math. And if they had been given a chance, historically, there would be a lot more exmples to choose from.
Do you believe there is a gene for math ability? This question often tags along with the first question as a lot of people think that it’s the boys that get the math ‘gene’. I’ve already addressed some of that above. But here’s the real problem with this belief – it gives people an out…one they don’t deserve. If you simply say, “Well, I wasn’t born with the math gene so I’m not going to sit here and figure this out,” then what you’ve created is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you don’t try, it stands to reason that you’re not going to do well. This argument is a cop-out.
“Hey,” you say, “There are lots of people who excel beyond normal in math. That’s proof there’s a math gene.” It’s true that some people excel at math just like some people excel at drawing or at taking apart and re-assembling an engine. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the fact that we all have the ability to think mathematically and solve basic problems. It may take a little hard work and elbow grease, but it’s there.
Which brings me to, “Do you get easily frustrated and give up when solving a difficult math problem?” Turns out, this is a personality issue. Research has shown that kids who are persistent in whatever they’re doing, tend to do better at math. That’s because math takes persistence. Those who aren’t naturally persistent tend to fall back on the “boys are better at math” or the “gene” argument. But it’s really about persistence. The good news is, we can develop this trait in our kids. Stay tuned. We’ll talk about this in a later discussion.
Math anxiety/phobia is a big issue. It’s going to take time to cover it all…and even then there will be more to discuss. For now, you can pay attention to how you feel about math and how that is coming across to your kids/students. Boys are not better at math than girls*. There is no such thing as a ‘math gene’.
To develop confidence, and therefore success, in math, it’s going to take work. But it can be done. Our next stop will be to take a close look at the learning environment. We’ll talk more about the brain, too, and discuss how both the environment and our brain contribute to building the confidence needed to be successful at math. But first, any thoughts? What have been your experiences with math? Do you like it or avoid it?
*In my 25 years of teaching, I’ve seen just as many boys who need “extra” help as girls. As a society, however, I think we tend to expect it in girls while offering encouraging you-can-do-it words to boys. It’s no surprise, then, that boys report being more confident in math than girls. Are we the ones creating the very thing we don’t want?