I have been giving a lot of thought to this recently. So many children and adults suffer from maths anxiety and there seems to be some quite specific reasons for this and some very easy ways we as educators can help to prevent children from developing anxiety in the first place.
Firstly we need to consider how we present maths to young children. From a very early age maths in lots of classrooms around the world becomes just about numbers. The thing about numbers is they are black and white...there is one way to form them, sequence them and usually one right answer. Children learn quickly and quite incorrectly through no fault of their own that to be successful at maths they must fit into a box, they must be fast and they must be right. They learn maths in abstract situations, numbers have no authentic meaning to them. They are often competitive and in some schools around the world they are very very aware of what 'group' they are in. Helping others goes out the window, it is everyone for themselves.
Even sadder is that in many classrooms around the world very young children are required to work from books or fill in sheets that present numbers one way and in a very abstract, inauthentic manner. These programmes are marketed as the answer to everything. These children are not able to read or write yet, but they are expected to work from a book or fill in a sheet...and that is supposed to help them develop maths knowledge? Do we as teachers lack so much understanding of mathematics that we need to have children working from books? Where has our use of visual tools gone?
Another dismaying thing is that teachers have begun to think of maths in a very linear progression...you learn this, then you learn this...etc. There is a lack of understanding for how children learn maths and adopt maths understandings and whilst I am a big believer in ensuring knowledge is developed, some poor children are hammering away at the same concept...never to get it and never to move on until they do. Even more dismaying is that this child is likely to have understandings further up this 'linear' approach, but the teacher will never find out because they are busy filling 'gaps.'
Children are taught from a very young age that maths is something that will be tested...and tested....and tested. They learn they need to be fast, they are put on the spot...not given time to think and rewarded for recalling an answer at speed. We then label these children that test well our 'good' mathematicians, when in reality all they have done is spit an answer back at me with probably complete lack of understanding and a whole lot of rote learning.
I have maths anxiety, I hated maths (note I say hated because now it is a something I love.) I never was taught to appreciate the beauty of the maths all around me, I passed tests, I rote learned, I achieved...but I avoid maths. Maths tests made me feel physically ill. Watching the two videos above I do understand why. I felt dumb at school because I struggled to use the one piece of equipment we were ever presented with, cuisenaire rods....I struggled with worksheets....I worried about getting things wrong....In fact maths was such an issue for me I avoided ever speaking during maths time. I kept my head down and pretended to be busy. I pretended to get it.
Sadly I recall the one time I felt successful at maths. The teacher had asked a rather simple question...I remember the answer was zero. We were seated in a circle, we all had to have a turn answering...there was no way to get out of it...I squirmed as others got it wrong....as others over thought the answer (it was maths right, the answer couldn't be so obvious.) ....my heart hammered in my chest...my hands went clammy...it was my turn....I couldn't avoid it....I answered with the most obvious answer I could think of....zero...I was right. I was eight...I remember that experience to this day. I also remember everyone laughing because the answer was so simple, I got it.
Do you want to know something even sadder....my daughter is 14 and she hates maths. She had great experiences at primary, but sadly then we were still in our testing culture....our speed testing culture...our streaming culture....it was just enough for her to develop anxiety. Now back in that high school testing culture she believes herself to be dumb...she hates maths....and there is very little I can do about it. I want her to have success, I want her to see mathematics as this beautifully authentic curriculum that is woven into every fabric of our everyday life...and maybe she will fingers crossed.
I know I am sounding incredibly hard on teachers everywhere. But you know what we need to take responsibility for the elements of our maths teaching that is creating this anxiety for children. As a school we were not doing a great job for everyone and taking part in PLD was like a watershed moment for us. I want us to be disobedient, I want us to be honest....I want us to move forward and stop measuring success with tests...I want us to start using our guts more often, we do know better.
If you have not read Jo Boaler's work yet I suggest you do. It has truly transformed how I see maths.
So what do we need to do to make a change?
Firstly and foremost we need to start seeing maths as more open ended ourselves. We need to appreciate the interconnected nature of number and strand and the role patterns and visual tools have to play in how children 'see' maths. We need to start implementing talk moves into our teaching.
As junior teachers we need to embrace the understandings about their world that have a mathematical context but may not be 'number' based. We need to embrace play-based learning....allow children to interact with their world, develop understandings, ask questions, notice things, to discuss and ask questions that have many possible answers.
We need to see ability in different ways and not assume because a child can not count to ten when they enter school that they are 'behind.'
We can have knowledge goals without causing anxiety.
We also need to work with parents, we need to share what works, concepts like maths eyes are a great way to start mathematical discussions at home.
We also need to embrace growth mindset and start lots of learning talk around this right from day one. We need to embrace mistakes and embrace the power of reflection.
When teaching maths we need to stop streaming...start mixed ability grouping. We need to focus on problem solving in authentic contexts. We need to stop testing under pressure. We need to stop timing. We need to teach basic facts longside visual tools to ensure a depth of number sense. We need to stop rewarding speed and start rewarding depth of thought. We need to focus on explaining and exploring different ways to do things. We need to ask low floor high ceiling questions in order to scaffold and extend. Focus on numberless problems and questions that may have more than one solution. We need to use maths eyes and encourage children to see mathematics in the world around them...and we need to start doing this ourselves. We need to stop running ourselves ragged having so many maths groups that we never to any of them justice, we need to stop thinking or being told that we have to keep a scrapbook for absolutely everything and write down and reflect on every moment.
We need to stop children seeing maths as a stand alone subject.
In my class we don't do maths. We solve problems, they just happen to be centred around mathematical concepts.
Number agents is an approach I have developed over time that encourages all of these things. It is based on up to date maths PLD (2015/16) My children love being agents, they love solving problems, they love counting...everything they do in professional development has a purpose, it is authentic. They are not under pressure....and hey they are already experts...so no need to be nervous eh!
I am passionate about changing the way we define maths in New Zealand. I encourage you to be disobedient...stop worrying about test scores, stop worrying about endlessly collecting evidence, go with your gut and do what works for children! Start being playful.
What would I love....I'd love my daughter to be an agent....I think this approach has possibilities right up the levels, mantle of the expert is like that, it is appropriate for any age and stage. Hey what teenager wouldn't want to work in a detective agency right?