Fear of Math
14 Jul 2021

Helping Students Overcome their Fear of Math

“I’m not a math person.” How many times have we heard someone say this? Or, maybe we ourselves have mumbled this in our moments of math struggles. But, is this even a thing? Very rarely, if ever, do you hear highly intelligent people say they are not a “reading person”, but these same individuals will often say this in regards to the way they perceive their math abilities. Which means that our students, or our own kids, may be picking up on the negative connotations we have towards math. There are many studies out there with varying conclusions about whether people are wired to be math people or non-math people, but the conclusion that can be made from this is that while some of us may have preferences towards math tasks, we all have the ability to learn math and be successful at it. It’s important to change our students’ mindset around math in order to make them feel successful in their math endeavors. Let’s look at three assumptions students make and identify ways to address each of these with your students.

“I don’t want to get it wrong.”

Failure has, for a long time, been communicated to us as a negative thing. But when you talk to people in high performing jobs, failure is the one of the most frequently mentioned reasons one considers themselves successful. If we can get our students to view failure as a necessary obstacle on the road to success, it takes a lot of the pressure off of the learning process. Students become more willing to take intellectual risks and it gives them permission to ask questions, make mistakes, and revise their thinking without fear. One of the best things we can do as teachers is to foster a classroom environment that is failure-friendly. Let them grapple with their ideas and thoughts, and let them struggle. Post a rough-draft thinking board that shows how student thinking morphs from “attempting to figure it out” to “finally finding success.” This approach highlights the mistakes along the way and builds that failure-friendly classroom culture.

“This doesn’t make sense to me.”

In order to make sense out of our world, we have to be able to relate to it in a way that resonates. If we are starting without context, we almost certainly are starting without curiosity. When our work takes on an authentic and purposeful role, the sense-making becomes intrinsic. If we want our students to “get it” we must scaffold their experiences in a way that lets them explore learning on their own terms while also supporting them on their path. By understanding the Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky) and working within their “Goldilocks” zone, we can push our students towards a direction that fuels sense-making and builds curiosity and critical thinking. This is the type of intellectual work that leads to sense-making and conceptual understanding. Project-Based learning is one of the best ways to achieve this level of work. Not only does PBL set the stage perfectly for authentic and meaningful work, it also builds students’ sense of ownership over their learning. Check out these projects to get started.

“Math is dull, rigid, boring…”

As a child going through the educational system, this was at the core of why I didn’t fall in love with math. I always felt like there was a certain predetermined path that I must take to reach the “right” answer. One path. One right answer. I never felt like there was room for a different approach. That was until middle school.

In sixth grade, I had a teacher who allowed me to show my understanding of a concept in any way that made sense to me. So I would sketch concept maps and write out with words and images the pathway I took to “get it”. Because for me, understanding math was visualizing it differently. And why not make it a creative endeavor? To go beyond math fluency and understand math deeply, we have to be able to conceptualize math both entirely and acutely. And this looks a bit different student to student.

So, how do we make math engaging for all of our students? Start with inquiry. When setting up our math work, don’t give them all the information they need. In fact, don’t give them much of it at all. Lead with an interesting question that makes them wonder. Build up their anticipation and let them explore the concepts and ideas in ways that make sense to them. Encourage them to ask questions, and respond to their questions without judgement. This allows them to develop adaptive reasoning as they conjecture, justify, and articulate their understanding. This is powerful math, because you have just put the workload on them.

Imagine if our kids walked into our classroom every morning saying, “I can’t wait to do math today!” or better yet, looked back on their education and had you to thank for building and fostering their love of math.

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