Schools Nervous about numbers

Mathematics can be a challenging subject for many, but for some students the difficulties are more psychological than cognitive, writes CHARLOTTE BARKLA.

According to a recent study by the Nuffield Foundation, some students experience Maths Anxiety (MA) – a debilitating emotional reaction that can severely disrupt their learning and performance in the subject. It can range from mild tension to strong fear, and those with MA are likely to avoid maths in any situation, not just at school.

Mathematics teacher Michael Minas says in his experience, MA typically manifests in an avoidance of maths, something which can create a vicious cycle. “Because the child has had bad experiences with maths, they feel like they don’t want to engage in it. But the more they don’t want to engage, the more they find it complicated, then that further feeds the anxiety.”

For those acutely affected, this can cause a more serious physical reaction, Michael adds. “It’s more than just not liking maths. It’s almost an internal trauma, where the student thinks, ‘I don’t want to do this, get me out of this, how do I avoid it?’”

Professor Peter Sullivan from Monash University’s Inclusive Mathematics Education Group says modifying the way we teach mathematics can help reduce MA. He recommends a problem-solving approach.

“Teachers can pose problems without telling the students what to do, and give students time to engage,” says Peter. “Students need to work by themselves first and then discuss with each other what they’ve been finding – putting students at the centre of the learning process.”

Interestingly, the Nuffield study – which was undertaken at the Centre for Neuroscience in Education at the University of Cambridge – showed that 77% of children with high maths anxiety are normal to high achievers on curriculum maths tests, with results not reflecting students’ true ability.

The study also pointed to a potential correlation between students who exhibit maths anxiety and a similar sense of apprehension felt by their parents or teachers. Michael says this is an issue he’s noticed in many classrooms.

“It happens in every school I go to – there’s always some teachers that have anxiety around teaching maths. You then have the same avoidance behaviour as you see with kids. We need to be aware that it’s a thing and look at how to support teachers who feel that way. If they feel ashamed, the problem won’t change.”

“It’s more than just not liking maths. It’s almost a trauma, where the student thinks, ‘How do I avoid it?’”

Michael Minas

Dr Sarah Buckley from the Australian Council for Educational Research has been leading a study addressing MA in pre-service primary teachers. This involves exposing pre-service teachers to information on how maths anxiety interrupts learning and teaching, and offering different strategies to address the issue.

“Traditionally in education, MA is addressed using a content knowledge approach whereby, if a student is anxious, they’re identified as someone who likely has low confidence in their maths skills. So, a teacher thinks, if I help the student develop their confidence, then indirectly their anxiety will decrease.”

While this is an important part of the solution, Sarah says it doesn’t tackle the prominent problem of avoidance. “You need to use strategies that directly help students or teachers reduce the symptoms of their MA. Then, once that’s a little more under control, any kind of instructional method to try to improve their confidence and skills can be more effective.”

Emotional regulation skills could include deep breathing, mindfulness and expressive writing, which not only assist in reducing MA but provide wider benefits. “Combining those emotional regulation skills with the content knowledge approach is a great way to make sure that you reduce anxiety but also prepare students and teachers to deal with anxiety they may face in the future, whether in another class, or in the workforce.”

So, why maths, and not English or music? “There are a lot of myths about maths,” says Sarah. “For example, the idea that maths can only be right or wrong; that you’re born with your maths potential and it’s quite fixed, and that maths ability equates to general intelligence.”

These myths can lead students to exhibit a set mindset about their maths potential. “Whereas in another subject that same person may believe that with more effort, they would be able to improve,” says Sarah.

Peter adds that traditional teaching methods can also play a part in creating anxiety around maths. “It’s natural in English to have the kids talking and creating stuff for themselves. I think some teachers see maths as a subject where you tell the kids what to do and the kids then follow step by step.”

Whatever the cause, Peter adds that addressing students’ maths anxiety is important for their overall participation in society. “So much of the world requires people to be able to think for themselves using mathematics, not just in employment. For example, half the newspaper seems to be filled with statistics and graphs now. If people have anxiety about maths, they’re less free. They’re less able to participate in a democratic society.”

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