I have been giving a lot of though lately to maths anxiety. Not in terms of children, but actually in terms of maths anxiety in teachers. You don't have to go far to have a conversation with a teacher about their experiences in maths and how they now have quite extreme maths anxiety. In fact some, like myself have quite a strong reaction to even the thought of being tested on their maths ability.
This level of anxiety has been caused largely by an approach to maths that was very much drill and skill. You learned the rules, but you never learned the why. Tests were timed and children had a very clear picture of their ability in maths, based on the group they were put in. Sadly many of these practices still persist, and it has been many many years since I was in a maths classroom.
What is more worrying is that now as teachers with a high level of maths anxiety we are given the huge responsibility of teaching maths to children. While this statement may be confronting for many, I believe some teachers will avoid teaching maths if they possibly can, or be unconsciously passing their dislike of maths onto their students.
Having an anxiety of maths is not conducive to encouraging growth mindset in children, however I believe that it is the concept of growth mindset that could really help.
Have I overcome my anxiety to maths...no not completely. If faced with a question that requires a quick response, I still get that good old panicked response. But I have learned that maths is not about speed, and my inability to answer at speed does not mean I am 'bad' at maths. Teaching and learning about growth mindset has also helped me hugely.
If someone had told me in primary school about growth mindset it would have all begun to make sense to me. If someone had stopped with the timed tests, given me time to answer and uncovered the wonderful secret that maths was not about speed, but about patterns and connections, they would have pulled away the veil of anxiety for me...this anxiety totally cannonballed my high school experience and I took to becoming the class clown, rather than admitting it was hard for me.
I want to share with you two experiences from my maths learning that I remember vividly, one is from the time I was maybe 7 or 8 and the other is from high school when I was 15. They were the two best experiences I can remember from maths (actually amongst only a handful of maths memories) and they have something in common.
The first experience was when I was about 7 or 8. I am not sure what the question was (but very typically from teaching of that time, there was one right answer.) We were seated in a circle, and very luckily for me I was in last position in the circle (this story wouldn't be a positive one if I was first or even second but last position gave me think time and it also allowed me to hear the answers and thinking of others.) The teacher asked the question and one by one each child had a go at answering it. One by one they got it wrong. About halfway round I twigged to the answer. She was being tricky, the answer was 0, but no one had clicked. It got to me, I answered 0 and I was right. Now this never happened, ever, never did Leslee ever have the right answer, or ever be brave enough to answer. The elation I felt at being right was overwhelming. The sense of pride and belonging I felt at the warm smile and praise the teacher offered seems silly now, but it was very real. I loved her, she was an amazing teacher, she had just never been proud of me for my maths skill and boy it felt great!
The second scenario was in my high school class...the old 5th form, the new year 11. Usually we would sit in rows at desks working away from books, but on this day we went out with the javelin to explore angles. I think we may have had athletics coming up and we were looking at the perfect angle to throw it out for the maximum distance. I didn't learn a lot, however it made angles very real for me...if we had gone out a few more times, or followed up with similar authentic sessions that assisted me to make connections, I am sure I would have 'got it' in a deeper way. Unfortunately my anxiety about maths was so far entrenched by then, I didn't really make the most of it.
While these experiences are quite different they do have a couple of commonalities. First of all, time, I had time to think. In both instances, there was no pressure on me to answer quickly. Secondly, talk, I had the opportunity to listen and learn from the talk of others, not just the teacher.
The second scenario is a lovely one because it really shows how an authentic situation can add real meaning to maths...it was also enjoyable and this was not something I could regularly say about maths.
I think we can use the concept of growth mindset to help ourselves. Ok, we may be the teacher, but appreciating that we can increase our own mathematical understandings is important for us. I absolutely believe for us to pass on a love of mathematics, we must first come to terms with our anxiety and teach ourselves again to love maths. The best way to do this, is to embrace growth mindset, to pass this on to our students and begin to teach maths in an open, visual and connected way. When teaching maths is fun, we will soon come to terms with our own anxiety.
Our ultimate aim should be to get rid of maths anxiety altogether, and I absolutely believe that if we can embrace approaches that truly show the beauty and authenticity of maths and give this gift to children as soon as they start engaging with maths in a more formal way, we can save them from that angst that was maths for us.
I believe there are specific ways we can start to do this:
1) Get rid of timed tests altogether. Speed is not a marker of ability.
2) Provide authentic situations for mathematical learning.
3) Use talk moves and mixed groups.
4) Get rid of streaming altogether.
5) Incorporate problem solving daily and allow children to develop knowledge as they solve these problems. Set open ended problems that have a high ceiling and low floor that children can access no matter what their knowledge.
6) Encourage the use of mathematical language. This will help to demystify some concepts and establish a common means of communicating ideas.
7)Use visual problems and material based problems where possible. Give children time to learn from each other.
8) Revisit concepts over and over again in different ways and allow time for exploration.
9)Maths is not just number, where possible present problems that show the connectedness of maths. Embrace the importance of Strand and integrate areas wherever possible.
10) Consider the way you assess children. Give them time. There is no problem with giving children a problem and allowing then to go away and think about it. Sitting beside them, looking over their shoulder is not conducive to encouraging the calm that they need to allow those neurons to fire.
These are just a few of my ideas, I think implementing these things will go a long way to eliminating maths anxiety in our students and ourselves.
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