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The 1 Thing That Will Improve Math Learning

How can we do a better job of teaching kids math? A different curriculum? New pedagogical strategies? Personalized instruction through technology? All these worthy ideas have their adherents, but another method — reducing math anxiety — may both improve performance and help kids enjoy math more.

I have found that math anxiety is one of the biggest blocker to math skills. Last year I was asked to work with a group of second graders who were struggling with math. I decided to just start with a little group discussion and share about their feelings around math. I was striking. Each one confessed to hating math. They shared their pain and fear around it. Hearing each second grader share their struggle was heartbreaking, but also created a sense of hope among the group. They heard that others struggled too. We made light of it, we laughed. We talked about math as if it was an arch-energy to conquer. We were open and honest. Then I asked them one by one, what would make math less scary or painful. We listened and then and only then did I start the lesson. The lesson was on tricks and tools to conquer that fear. I can’t say that they all became fearless around math, but I can say for that moment some of the fear around math disappeared. Math should not determine your worth, yet often those that struggle most internalize this struggle to the point that it stays with them long into their adulthood. My hope as a teacher is to never let that be the case. Sometimes I am successful and sometime the fear of math wins out… but I will keep trying!

-Adventures in Learning

This is so true. I wish that my teachers would have said that it was okay to be anxious or scared about doing math as a way to relate to me as a student. As a teacher, I want children to know that it is okay to feel that way, and that they’re not alone in feeling that way. I still have anxiety about math at times because I was never extremely good at it; my confidence in my ability as I got into higher levels pretty much depleted. I’ve told students in my practicum classrooms that I am not good at math and that it sometimes is hard for me too as a way to see that I understand why they are saying “I hate math” or “I hate school” as a result of a math lesson. I hope by being able to use these experiences of discussion and relation to each other and myself help students not shy away from learning. 

I will tell this story a million times without regret: when I was in middle school I was an A+ student at math and wanted anything I could get my hands on. In high school I had some difficulty. My friends in the upper-level classes were, for some reason, all male, and spent their free time programming their own games in their calculators. When I had trouble with math they didn’t know what to do about it.

When I asked the teacher for help after failing a test she offered me the chance to redo it as a take-home packet. When I still failed, she told me, “I don’t know why you don’t understand this.” She never offered me a walkthrough; she paired me up with one of my male friends, and between the two of us we still couldn’t figure out what I didn’t understand exactly, because for him it came naturally and because I didn’t know enough about what I didn’t understand to explain it.

I kept failing things. I started believing I was just terrible at math, and that it was a matter of natural ability more than practice.

When I got to college I opted to take a higher math class than the lowest I had tested into. I wanted to try again. I was paired up with a fellow student in my dorm who was kind, energetic, patient, and majoring in math. I got so upset and anxious that I avoided him, and when we did spend time together it was while I was making art or doing other work, like approaching a nervous animal in moments of calm instead of going right after it with a net. I only gave him the chance to actually help me a couple of times, but even when I was just doing homework with him sitting near me he always gave me positive feedback and insisted that I could do this — that anyone could learn to do and love math.

I got a B+. A B+ in college-level calculus was worth confetti and party blowers and cake, let me tell you.

Confidence and positive exposure is so, so very important in math — as is abolishing the idea that math is naturally difficult, terrible, and that few people are naturally predisposed to being good at it.

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