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Category: Math Phobia/Anxiety

Math…it’s a Workout

Math…it’s a Workout

“Your workout has to be fun.  You’re not going to stick with it if it isn’t fun.”  I hear this every time I’m in the middle of a difficult workout.  And every time I hear it I want to ‘bop’ the lady on the DVD who is guiding me through the “fun”.
 
It’s not always easy, but I try to get in a workout several times a week.  Unlike the opinion of Ms. DVD, however, working out is not always a lot of fun.  There’s usually some pain involved.  Those lunges hurt.
 
So the other day when she repeated herself for the umpteenth time, I started to think about why I continue to pop in that DVD and torture myself for 40 minutes.  After all, she said it was supposed to be fun and I wasn’t feeling the fun.  I just wanted the workout to be over so I could get that sense of accomplishment that comes with knowing you’ve done something good for yourself.
 
And there it was.  My motivator.  That sense of accomplishment.  And I was willing to endure some pretty tough exercises in order to get it.
 
But there was another motivator, too.  Results.  If I didn’t get any results from my pain, well then it wouldn’t be worth doing.
 
It’s the same in the math classroom.  Some math problems are not fun.  And some math problems are not easy.  But that doesn’t mean that they’re not important to do. The key is to help students make connections between the problems they’re working on and the reasons for doing them.  We need to show them the benefits.
 
That’s where Carole Dweck comes in – author of numerous books on Mindset Theory.  In her research, Professor Dweck shows that when we work on difficult problems neurons in the brain form new and stronger connections.  She likens our brain to a muscle that grows with effort and difficulty.  And as our brain grows, we get smarter.
 
Wow.  That’s pretty important stuff.  Too often kids think that “smart” people don’t need to put in effort.  We need to share with them that anyone can grow a smarter brain if they work at it.  And what a powerful motivator – knowing your brain is growing through the hard work you’re doing.
 
But, like my workouts, kids also need to experience results.  It’s these little victories along the way that build confidence and make the effort worth it.  So, as educators, we need to set up the environment so that kids can be successful.  There’s nothing like the sense of accomplishment for having completed a difficult task.  And as kids succeed and gain confidence they become better prepared to take on more and more difficult challenges.
 
Yes, doing certain things can be hard.  But doing things that are hard can benefit us.  So as we head into “testing season”, let’s remind our students that effort and difficulty grows a bigger, stronger, smarter brain.  And a bigger, stronger, and smarter brain will give them the opportunity to succeed at just about anything they want.  And that’s worth working hard for.

 

The Two Most Important Questions to Ask Your Kids

The Two Most Important Questions to Ask Your Kids

Okay, so I’m talking about the two most important questions you can ask your kids to help develop mathematical thinking.

Wait! Don’t go. Math often receives short shrift. It’s unfortunate because math, taught correctly, teaches us how to effectively problem solve. It’s also the perfect subject to teach our kids persistence. Research has shown that kids who are persistent tend to do better academically. And doing well academically has great benefits in life.

The two most important questions:

#1: WHY? “Why” is important to ask because you want to discover your child’s strategies and reasons. You want them to think about their thinking and solidify their learning.

#2: WHAT IF? “What If” is important to ask because you want kids to discover many different ways to solve a problem, extend their thinking, and elicit their creativity.

Asking questions is extremely important in:

-knowing what your kids know
-understanding their thinking process
-guiding them
-having them think about their thinking (metacognition)
-teaching them to be effective problem solvers
-teaching them to be persistent
-showing them there can be more than one way to solve a problem
-helping them solidify their learning

If you’re looking for “easy” ways to help your child in math…start with these two questions. You just may discover a lot about your child and, perhaps even yourself.

There is No Math Gene

There is No Math Gene

Remember when I said there is no math gene? I meant it. But to underscore it, I’m going to share my son’s artwork.

What does art have to do with math genes? Take a look at the photo. These are some of the art pieces that are hanging on my wall created by my oldest son. (My youngest son has an art wall, as well.) I’ll have to admit, these pieces are pretty good. The longboard piece (Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street Rainy Day) was made in his second year of art in high school. That’s the one I want to discuss.

My son is not an artist. Would you believe me if I told you that if I asked him to draw me a picture of a person, I’d get something that resembled a stick figure. No kidding. And even then, it might take some imagination to figure it out.

So how does my stick-figure-drawing son paint such a stunning piece on his longboard? Hours and hours of work studying perspective, lighting, shadows, and paying carefull attention to detail. And a few minor meltdowns.

But that brings me to my point. Nathan spent three years in (high school) art class as a struggling artist. We don’t normally think of the actual work to be the struggling part. But it was for Nathan. He spent more hours on his art homework than he did on his calculus or history homework. Why? Precisely because he’s not an artist. It doesn’t come naturally to him. And that means a lot more effort is required to produce acceptable work.

It’s no different in math. It takes hard work. Even for those who “get” math, it’s hard work. Take, for example, two high school juniors…both girls. I’ve known them since the early elementary years and both are tops in their Calculus math class. I know this because my youngest son is in that class. He describes how hard they work, how many questions they ask in class, and how well they do on their tests. They put the time in.

So it’s not about having a math (or an art) gene. It’s about being persistent. It’s taking a break and coming back to it later. It’s believing that with effort it can be done.

Nathan has absolutely no career aspirations that involve art. And maybe most kids don’t have any career aspirations that involve higher math. But the math that is required of our kids…it’s not beyond their reach as long as they’re willing to put in the work. And if they do, they’ll find that it’s the struggle that makes the accomplishment so much sweeter.

By the way, a few weeks into his college life, Nathan texted me that he wanted to put wheels and trucks (whatever those are) on the board so that he could actually use it. Apparently his roommate has his own long board and it’s a lot of fun. Um, I don’t think so. The board and all the hard work are staying right where they are, on my wall. I thought kids were supposed to get their brains back after high school…

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Attitude. Its Effect on Math Ability.

Attitude. Its Effect on Math Ability.

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?

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*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?

What is ‘Math’ Anyway?

What is ‘Math’ Anyway?

Part of figuring out how to help kids grow up comfortable with math, is to understand what math is. If you ask a group of first graders to describe math, the responses are very similar. Math is adding and taking away. Older elementary students will add multiplying and dividing. When prodded to include more, there are often long pauses followed by kids giving the same answer but in a different way. Rarely does anyone describe math as shapes or patterns or estimating or measuring. And even when I ask why we learn math I still have kids trying to convince me that it’s because we need to know how many apples everyone ends up with.

And it’s true. Knowing how many apples everyone ends up with is important. But how exciting would it be to hear a group of kids say that we learn math so we can build a pen for our new rabbit or design a new backpack or figure out how long it would take to save to buy a go-cart!

And if kids believed that that was what math was all about, wouldn’t math actually be fun? Wouldn’t they look forward to math? But instead, they learn that math is something we do in school for a set amount of time, that it usually involves following some sort of rules in a specific order, and we use a pencil to do it. In other words…math is not very exciting.

I don’t think we deliberately set out to teach kids that math is boring. I think it happens as a consequence of a couple of things.

First, we teach math as a subject in school that fits “nicely” into a series of lessons in a textbook. We learn one concept then spend a couple of pages practicing it. Then we learn the next concept and spend another couple of pages practicing it. And so on. It gets pretty mundane and…boring. (I’d like to note, however, that there are plenty of teachers who are trying desperately to change this through integrating math with hands-on projects. My hat off to them in this unforgiving environment of standardized testing.)

The other reason I don’t think math is very exciting is that we typically have a very shallow definition of what math is, as indicated by the responses received by kids. We tend to reduce math to arithmetic. And solving a set of arithmetic problems is…well…boring.

But when we understand the true nature of math, we realize that it is so much more than computation.

So what, then, is math? Math is a way of thinking about and describing our world through problem-solving. It’s figuring out how much time you’ll need to get ready for school or knowing if there’s enough milk to last another day or figuring out how long it will take to get to grandmas. We may use arithmetic to help us solve these problems, but arithmetic, by itself, is meaningless. The power of math comes in the real-life application, in the problem-solving. And when we understand this, we learn that math happens to be supremely useful in just about everything we do throughout the day. We just need to begin recognizing it.

How do we do this?

Start by being aware of and “advertising” the math that we do daily. For example:

Look how that cup holds more milk than this cup. (measurement)
I have two more crackers than you. One, two. (comparing, counting)
We need one spoon for each person. (one-to-one correspondence)
How many steps do you think it will take to get to the top of this staircase? (estimating, counting)
Can you help me put these in order from smallest to largest? (ordering, measurement)
That window is made up of a lot of rectangles. Let’s count how many. (geometry, counting)
This shape has one, two, three sides. Hey, that makes it a triangle. (geometry, counting)

When we talk about math this way, kids will see math as simply something we do and doing math then becomes natural. And if we periodically make the connections between what they’re doing and the fact that it’s related to math, we’ll create positive associations with math.

Hey, I really like how you solved that math problem by putting the triangles together to make rectangles for your ramp.

When we teach math as a natural extension of our daily lives, kids find it useful and meaningful. But, more importantly, it begins to make sense. And things that make sense make us comfortable.

We need to capitalize on this because kids who feel they can do math develop confidence in their math ability. And that’s good because as kids go up the academic ladder where math becomes more non-practical* and abstract this confidence is the foundation on which they’ll build their higher level math skills.

So begin by changing the definition of math from calculations to problem solving. Then be aware of the math that you are surrounded by in your everyday life. Find opportunities to draw out and discuss the math with your kids. More than you may know, math is a huge part of your everyday life. Now you just need to recognize and announce it.

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*There’s still a lot that kids can learn even when the math may not relate directly to their lives. It comes in the form of learning to think through problems, strategize, organize, evaluate, and, my favorite, persist.

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