A couple days ago there was an article in the SMH, titled,
Bad with numbers? You might have maths anxiety
Yeah, maybe. Or maybe you just suck at maths. It’s a conundrum.
The SMH article, by education reporter Christopher Harris, is adorned with a photo of a beaming Eddie Woo trying to look smart, and begins with a dire warning:
Eddie Woo says it only takes nine words from a parent to make a student struggle with numbers for the rest of their 13 years of schooling: “Don’t worry, I was never any good at maths. … It is a well-meaning statement, but it has disastrous effects,”
“Disastrous”. A couple stray words and little Johnny is doomed. Eddie continues:
“It is meant to reassure a kid and say don’t stress; the irony is, it has the opposite effect … it reinforces mathematics anxiety.”
And we’re on our way with “maths anxiety“. Harris tries to explain:
Mathematics anxiety is the name given to the feeling of being overwhelmed and confused when faced with a mathematical problem.
Heaven forbid one should ever risk tackling a problem that might be overwhelming, or even confusing.
Researchers in 1972 defined it as the feeling of tension and anxiety that interferes with the solving of mathematical problems in both ordinary life and academic situations.
Yes, the difficulty of a problem can interfere with thinking clearly about solving the difficult problem. Welcome to life.
None of this is anything, of course, beyond the issue of accepting the reality of obstacles and learning how to manage them. Which is part and parcel of learning. And none of it has anything to do with Eddie’s fantasy disasters, which Harris finally gets around to noting:
Unlike generalised anxiety, [maths anxiety] is not an official psychiatric disorder,
So, not an official psychiatric disorder. Or much of anything. Which doesn’t stop education academics acting as if it were:
… but academics have been studying [maths anxiety] in some form for more than 60 years.
Well, fifty years from 1972, not sixty. But it’s not that Harris is bad with numbers. He probably just has maths anxiety.
From there, Harris’s article degenerates into the standard, aimless discussion of bad maths vibes, and what to do about it. Harris quotes Eddie and others, about the importance of having a “positive mindset” or whatnot. It is all nonsense.
More than anything kids, and adults, fear what they do not know or do not understand. In particular, if kids are confused by, have a disliking of, are nervous about, or are even made anxious by some aspect of mathematics, it is almost certainly in large part because they are being presented with ideas or tasks that they do not understand. The solution, then, is obvious: give the kids clear information and clearly defined techniques to master, to be done by the completion of carefully chosen and clearly expressed exercises, with and without teacher direction as appropriate.
In brief, the solution to bad maths vibes is not to fetishise these vibes into a fake syndrome. The solution is to get the kids to not suck at maths. The first step of which is to admit that the kids might, as it stands, suck at maths.
But of course truth is a terrible idea for kids, isn’t it? Better to smile like Eddie and think nice thoughts. There’s no way that that could end disastrously.