Thursday, August 5, 2010

Math Anxiety: Can a Math-Anxious Parent Raise Math-Confident Kids?

People didn’t talk about math anxiety when I was in elementary schools. There were just kids who were smart at math and kids who were not so smart. Smart kids got the answer right away; dumb kids didn’t try. We all knew boys were generally better at math than girls. After all, they had the math gene.

The further you went in math, the more likely you were to slip into the not-so-smart category, the ones who didn’t understand right away. The teacher might sigh and roll his eyes; the other kids might glare or snicker or make comments under their breath.

No wonder we grew up into a math-anxious nation. Math teaching guru Marilyn Burns estimates that up to two-thirds (aak, a fraction!) of American adults suffer from math anxiety. For some of us, the anxiety is severe. Sit us down for a math test and we start to sweat. Our pulse and blood pressure rise. We can’t focus or remember; our minds go blank. I’ve never seen this before! What if someone finds out how stupid I am? Such levels of anxiety preclude certain careers and can even make us avoid thinking about budgets, markets, or college savings plans.

Even the milder forms of math anxiety are something we can easily pass on to our children, leaving them as handicapped as we are. So what’s a parent to do?

Those who treat math anxiety in college students suggest that we should first confront a number of harmful myths about math. These include:

Math ability is something you’re born with. You just have it or you don’t.

Sure, there are math geniuses, probably a few every century. But most math ability, like most violin-playing ability, comes from practice. (Math geniuses practice math most of all.) The secret to learning math is to find ways of learning that are effective, and then to keep at it. After all, we work on mastering the English language just about all our waking hours. We should expect mastering the language of mathematics to take some time, too.

Boys are just better at math. But that’s all right, because girls don’t need math as much.

Boys do a couple of points better than girls on national tests like the NAEP, and a full 35 points better on the SAT. But girls do better than boys in high school and college math classes, and earn 47% of all math BA’s. Women are taking their place as doctors, biologists, chemists, engineers—and they need math.

Math is about getting the right answers fast.

Timed tests and some school contests perpetuate this notion. But English mathematician Andrew Wiles spent nine years on one problem. When he succeeded and presented his proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, he became one of the most celebrated mathematicians of his generation.

There’s no room for creativity in math.

Real math is not primarily about crunching numbers. We have computers and calculators for that. Math is about ideas, finding underlying patterns, thinking of new ways of approaching a problem. More and more school math is beginning to mirror this reality, rewarding creativity and collaboration in the classroom.

Thinking through these myths, confronting them deep inside ourselves, is the first step to freeing ourselves and our children from math anxiety. Try it, and I’ll be back with the next step next time.

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