Thursday, 8 February 2018

A personal story....maths anxiety

I wanted to take the time in this blog post to share something personal with you.  Something very real and often completely misunderstood.  

Maths anxiety. 

 I want us to all be aware of the role we play in making maths anxiety a real barrier for students, or the role we can play in removing this barrier for our students.

Maths anxiety starts young and is a huge reason that I started my Number Agents approach, I want children to have positive experiences with mathematics that give them a sense of competence and success.

Why is this personal? Because I myself suffer from maths anxiety, an anxiety that was created by an overwhelming focus on the endless retention of facts, measured by the speed that we could remember them at.  I will never forget sitting for lengths of time with headphones on being 'tested' on my basic facts.  

The fact is that I'm just not that type of learner, still to this day, I am reflective and take my time, I like to think, apply understandings and explore things in different ways and from various angles.  I am not good when rushed.  I have since learned that this is perfectly acceptable and is in fact how mathematicians work...too late for me because although I now appreciate the absolutely beauty of mathematics, I still get the willies when put under any type of pressure to come up with an answer.  

However that is not why this message is truly personal, this message is much more personal because it is about my daughter.

She also suffers from maths anxiety (coupled with very real social anxiety it is not a great mix for high school.)  What makes it even more personal is that she went through my school and very sadly she went through our school when we valued speed of recall.  Although other aspects of maths were taught very well, this emphasis on speed of recall, especially through a certain speed test administered twice a year (so we could prove progress)  has had long lasting effects on her.  The fact that she was not fast (even though she never did badly on the tests) has left her with a lasting fear of any timed based testing and a feeling of failure when it comes to maths.  

Since I have been lucky enough to open my eyes and mind to the work of Jo Boaler I have come to realise that we have been making some key mistakes as teachers.
1) Focus on speed and one right answer (doing this can quickly give children a sense of failure.)
2)Narrow problems that are not authentic and do not allow children to see mathematics as a 'real' part of their world.
3) Not enough focus on visual problem solving or the use of materials.

Since we have made adjustments to our programmes we have been seeing some remarkable changes in mindset.

So I have been working on these with my daughter, who is now 15.  Reminding her of the word yet, constantly reminding her that mathematicians are slow and take their time to problem solve.  Teaching her to remind her brain that when she feels anxious about being fast, to remind herself that she does not need to be fast.  This trick will help her to actually be quick because she does have the fact there, her anxiety creates the barrier that leaves her unable to access this quickly.  Telling her brain she does not require speed, will help to bring down this barrier.  I have also taught her that she is strong visually and spend time encouraging her to ask to see problems in a visual way.

Unfortunately in her first two years no amount of me telling her this would help when the teaching that was going on consisted of fast facts and copying from the board, along with abstract problems she could not see the relevance of.

Her view of maths got worse and worse, and this intelligent, thoughtful, reflective child became increasingly convinced she was absolutely dumb.  In fact by the end of last year her strategy was avoidance, disconnecting and showing disinterested behaviour so the teacher would not know she was really actually feeling very vulnerable and lost.  

Now to the point of this story....because there is hope.  

This year she has a teacher that has already taken an interest, slowed down, introduced problems she can see relevance in.  This teacher has also taken the time to talk and explain concepts, to show how concepts are connected.  Yes she does warm ups, but with no emphasis on speed.  She also asks them to write down how they felt about the session and anything they felt they needed to know more about.  In three days this teacher has managed to turn a light on for my daughter.  She is starting to use the strategies I have talked to her about, to tell her brain it does not need to be fast, to solve problems visually.  Best of all she feels confident to ask.  She has started to see herself as competent.  Today she even spoke of feeling proud because she managed to finish all the problems set in front of her.  Maths was cut short and she was disappointed.

Now I am not saying her anxiety is gone...but in three short days this teacher, through her learner centred approach, and focus on problem solving that requires slowing down, has been able to transform the kind of language my daughter uses about herself as a mathematician.  She is even accepting the power of yet.  

We have incredible power, and with incredible power comes great responsibility.  We need to understand the effect we can have, often unintentionally on students.  

Maths anxiety knows no barriers, all levels of children can have child should be made to feel dumb at maths because they are not fast, need to see things visually or to have something explained a few times in different ways.

Please take the time to read the work of Jo Boaler if you have not done so already, you won't regret it!

Go forward this year and make a difference for all the mathematicians in your closely for those that appear switched off and disinterested, they are often your most vulnerable.

Never, ever doubt your power to make a difference.

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