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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Helping Students Cope with Math Phobia

By Peter DeWitt — February 15, 2012 3 min read
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Educators may be teaching students to have a math phobia rather than teaching them to love the subject.

On Monday our school celebrated the 100th Day. If you have ever spent time in an elementary school you know how excited primary students get about the 100th day of school. It’s right up there with Halloween and Valentines Day (which happened to be the next day). The masked super hero, Zero the Hero (Dr. Jean) came to visit with students. Zero, who is a high school student (Shh...don’t tell anyone) taught our kids about the importance of math.

Our K-5 students spent the day doing projects that equaled 100. They learned about numbers that were divisible by ten and focused on the ones, tens and hundreds place. As the grades go up (k,1,2,3, etc.) so does the difficulty in concepts. After ninety-nine days of counting the ordinal number of days at calendar time, the one hundredth day was finally here. It’s a great experience to see students with their 100th day projects such as a collection of 100 items of special hates that have 100 special things glued to them.

I walked around school with my gold “0” chain so the kids would know that I was excited that Zero the Hero was coming to school. Many of our students couldn’t wait to share their projects and many of our K-1 students participated in a 100th Day Parade around school. The one hundredth day is about so much more than counting numbers. Celebrations like the 100th Day are meant to show students how fun can be because sometimes math gets a bad rap.

Math is a frightening subject for many students. It may even be frightening for the educators who have to teach it in the elementary classroom. “Math people” are good at the subject and completely understand how to solve problems. They know how to teach in creative ways. Often those math people are told they have a good “math brain.” However, we also have many students who have a math phobia (Sobel).

Unfortunately, I am not one of those people who have a math brain, which might explain why I stayed in elementary school. I could handle addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. There was a time when my math phobia took over my common sense. I worried that I was teaching students my math phobia and I needed to change my instruction. Teaching elementary students provided me with a love for math.

Giving Students a Math Phobia
“The only thing to fear is fear itself.” Franklin D. Roosevelt

Hearing the word MATH can make students and teachers quiver with fear. However, students and teachers do not have to be fearful of math. Math isn’t scary! It’s complicated and difficult at times but it should not instill fear. Math is actually very fun and it is a major part of our daily lives. Students need to understand that math is an important part of their world.

Educators may be teaching students to have a math phobia rather than teaching them to love the subject. When looking at problems it is important that students understand that there is not one way of doing things. Math can teach students so much more than just math. It teaches students to not give up when a problem gets difficult. In addition, students learn how to problem solve and negotiate their way through difficult issues. Teachers can help their students negotiate their way through the process. It’s not always about having the correct answer at the end of the problem, although that is always the goal! Math is also about the voyage students take to solve that problem in the first place.

In the End
Students who have a math phobia may also have test taking anxiety. Timed tests and too much test prep in the area of math, which is one of the two major focuses of high stakes testing, can exacerbate the issue. It is important for educators to find a balance with formative and summative assessments where math is concerned. That balance must be between teaching a love of the subject and not assessing so much that the love disappears.

Math is a different language that kids need to learn, and there is no better time than at a young age. All educators have a subject that they like the least and many times that subject is math. Perhaps they did not have an outstanding teacher who helped them negotiate their way through a math problem to solve it properly. Perhaps they had a teacher that gave too many tests and did not make the subject as fun as it could be for students. In the end it is important for students to walk away from school with a solid foundation which includes math. Instead of transferring their math phobia on to students they need to be teaching a love for the subject.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.