Thursday, May 19, 2011

Fear and Loathing in Calcville: Who Makes Kids Anxious About Math?

Recently, another study (Researchers Probe Causes of Math Anxiety: It's more than just disliking math, according to scholars) has appeared proposing to explain the causes of mathematics anxiety. It shows up as part of a book called CHOKE: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To, by Sian Beilock. If what's in the article is an accurate depiction of what the study has to tell us, there's not much new to see. 

On my view, math anxiety is obviously not something many people, if any, are born with: for the most part, we catch it from others. However, it is worth noting that there are many carriers who are not themselves suffering from the disease. Contemptuous, arrogant mathematics teachers can readily drive someone into math anxiety, and frequently do, I strongly suspect. So can rigidity about what doing and being "good at" mathematics entails. Given how most US teachers present the subject in K-12, math is only or primarily the following: calculation, arithmetic, and speed (with accuracy, of course).

Yet none of those things are particularly what mathematicians deal with. No mathematician is judged by speed of calculations - arithmetic or otherwise. Calculation may not even be a particular strength of a professional mathematician. Mathematicians by and large deal with abstractions, patterns, connections. Of course, some deal with applications of mathematics to sciences and engineering and other "real world" problems and situations, some straddle the territory between "pure" and "applied mathematics," and most couldn't care less whether what they work on has applications beyond mathematics itself.  Calculation isn't their interest and they know that when it comes to pure calculation, it's hard to beat a computer for speed and accuracy. They also know that the computer won't offer  insight, leaps of heuristic thinking that connects seemingly unrelated ideas in two or more areas of mathematics, or the recognition of underlying structural similarities, etc. While by definition computers excel at computation, the fact remains that they don't think or "do" mathematics.

Unfortunately, neither do most American schoolchildren after a few years of exposure to what accurately should only be called "school math." Is it any wonder that, confronted in early elementary school with high-pressure tests that demand the calculation of 100 arithmetic problems (mixed or not) in 3 to 5 minutes depending on the teacher or school, many students just bail out of mathematics for the rest of their lives? The "stand and deliver" approach may work for those kids who happen to be quick at the given task demanded of them (I was one such kid) and enjoy the concomitant competition, but for many that's the fast track to tuning out mathematics permanently.

Of course, I was no more doing mathematics when I crunched all those numbers quickly and accurately than is a computer today when it does in a nanosecond what it took me a few minutes to complete. It took me close to another thirty years to find out what mathematics actually is about. And I'm one of the lucky ones: I stumbled into more useful viewpoints about the subject, along with learning a reasonable amount of mathematics. Most Americans don't: not because they were born deficient in the ability to do and appreciate "higher" mathematics, but because they were denied the opportunity to get anywhere near higher mathematics due to an approach to the subject that is demeaning, alienating, and clearly grounded in some sort of bizarre notion of competition and "winnowing wheat from chaff." Who knows how much mathematical talent is wasted every day in our country due to such absurd notions of the subject and its teaching? For how much longer can we afford to tolerate such an anemic view of  this vital, powerful, and - dare I say it - beautiful discipline?

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