Sunday, June 24, 2007

Math Anxiety: Where Does It Come From?

The following appeared on-line today:
"Math. Throughout my childhood, adolescence, and most of my adult life, the very thought of the subject struck genuine fear in me. I thought about fractions and decimals or even addition or subtraction and would actually feel pinpricks of sweat break out on the back of my neck and the palms of my hands."

I found myself wondering, as I read one person's glib comment that it "is unfortunate that Denise Noe did not have the same type of teachers that I had," if the terms "math anxiety" and "mathphobe" aren't misnomers to some extent.

That is to say, the implication seems to be that there's something about mathematics that is inherently anxiety-producing. While anything is possible, and unlike my esteemed colleagues on the other side of the Math Wars, I don't profess to know any great universal truths, I suspect that "math anxiety" is not something that would occur naturally in many people. I have a hard time imagining, if books like THE MATH GENE and THE NUMBER SENSE are well-founded, as I believe they are, that anyone would, with no external forces at work, find anything about childhood mathematics tasks inherently anxiety-provoking.

Thus, I am inclined to strongly suspect that like other kinds of academic anxieties, "math anxiety" or "math phobia" are learned (dare I say "constructed"?) responses that like most neurotic conditions represent the best coping strategy an individual can muster in the face of an unhealthy situation. (Only when the unhealthy stimuli no longer obtain, but the feelings associated with and the strategies no longer necessary are predominant does a "best coping strategy" become neurotic). What is the unhealthy situation? I would propose that it is the kind of abuse I have witnessed all-too-often while working with elementary school teachers: humiliation, impatience, tolerance of peer mockery, unreasonable application of pressure to perform, intolerance of error, demand for perfection, etc. Of course, some of these may originate not with the teacher, but with the student's home situation, but that is something I don't generally get the opportunity to observe. What I have observed suffices, however, to support the notion that bad teachers, be it through ignorance of the mathematics itself, rigidity in responding to alternate thinking or student speculation, or any of the previously-mentioned malpractice, are highly culpable in the creation of math anxiety, math phobia, or out and out fear and loathing of mathematics. Indeed, given some of the horrors I've seen (and consider that I wasn't spying: the teacher was operating with full knowledge that there s/he wasn't operating without other adult professionals in the room), it's a wonder anyone learns to enjoy mathematics at all.

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