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Overcoming our Anti-Math Bias
January 31, 2011 by Terry VanNoy  | 

Anti-math bias is a prevalent problem in our culture today.  The attitude that math is hard, math is not worthy of study at higher level, that not everyone can be naturally successful at it hampers our ability to convince our children to work hard at it.  As a result, too many high school students don’t take enough math classes before graduation, and the poor attitude towards math as a subject gets passes on to the next generation.

One of the contributing causes of this poor attitude about the subject of mathematics is that there actually is a clinical phobia that affects many math students.  Even though it is a small part of the population, “arithmophobia” or “numerophobia” influences how some people think of numbers, calculations, and studying math in class.  The author Marilyn Burns, in her book “Math: Facing an American Phobia” states that 2/3 of adults have hatred and deep fear of math.   While I’m not sure her quantities are correct, this fear of numbers influences how parents talk to children, and accept failure at school at certain levels.

Similarly, in the book “Telling Math: Origins of Math Aversion and Anxiety”, Susan S. Stodolosky tells of how this fear of numbers leads to math avoidance and aversion of the subject.

This portion of people does need some professional help for their phobia of math, and it is part of the equation.  But what about the rest of our parents and their school-age children? 

The truth is that there is a misunderstanding about numeracy in our society: achieving a level of mathematical literacy is a survival skill.  The “innumerate” population cannot understand connections, analysis, and patterns found in our world.  They have difficulty comprehending probability events, making informed business and financial decisions, and predicting the future.  Anyone who can succeed in school and become mathematically literate is empowered to take control of their own lives at a much higher level.  How can parents influence their children to take on this challenge?

The answer lies in breaking down the mystery of mathematics.  If studying mathematics could be likened to learning a foreign language, it wouldn’t seem so impossible.  Like language learning, age makes a difference.  Younger brains are wired better for this task, and it is made more difficult as we get older.  Also, mature learners attempting to master a language (or a math class) might have emotional blocks and bad habits to overcome.

What do young children do when they are learning how to speak a language?  If faced with a challenge, do they give up?  No, they keep practicing, keep rehearsing, look around for examples and help to understand.  In essence, they get right back up after they fall; they get back on the bicycle and try again.

Why don’t math students persevere?   Because they hear all around them that it is OK to fail, that math is not logical or understandable, and that the best strategy is just to bide their time until they don’t have to do it anymore.  “Eventually, it will just go away and we won’t have to deal with it.”

I think the root cause of all this is that children just don’t practice the basics enough, aren’t given the support and tools they need, and are given excuses to give up.  We would never see this in young kids learning to talk, walk, or young adults learning how to navigate through the train schedule in a new city.  Why do we accept it for math students working their way through the math curriculum structures at school?

The adults in a child’s life role model proper or improper attitudes towards math and numbers.  Listen to the family and peer conversations: hearing phrases like “I hated math, too”  OR  “just get through it, soon you won’t have to do it anymore”  OR  “some people just get it, some never will” don’t help the situation.

The solution to this prevalent problem is just a decision away.  Students can learn math, must overcome the daily confusions and challenges of learning formal arithmetic, algebra, and higher levels of math, and need to see the worthwhile finish line.  It will be worth it, and the cycle can be broken!