Math anxiety

Through evolution, a part known as the Amygdala, a walnut-sized part of the brain that controls our “flight or fight” response to certain external stimuli was developed. It is an ingenious innovation really, as it has kept our predecessors one step ahead of the mighty Saber-Toothed Tiger, making us inherently afraid of certain things. 

Today, as the saber-toothed Tiger no longer threatens the average person, human evolution has caused the development of a whole host of irrational fears. While some people are afraid of snakes, heights or even clowns, I find myself struggling to explain my greatest fear of all: Fractions.

Unfortunately, fractions is an oversimplification, as in reality, my heart starts to race and my knees start to shake at the mere mention of mathematics.

So what scary childhood experience did I have with numbers that has caused such an acute fear for such a critical subject area? That is the issue. I never had a terrible math teacher who grinded their fingernails across the chalkboard; all of my teachers have been outstanding and my parents have been nothing but enthusiastic for math and its application.

The reason my brain turned me into the timid mathematician that I am lies within the flawed way I was introduced to math as a younger child, which has caused me to suffer from math anxiety, a pseudo phenomenon.

From the beginning of any student’s formal education process, children are either labelled as being good or being bad at math through a system of education that determines our capability far too early. My lower school experience entailed the division of our 22-student class into three separate math levels; Those of us in the lower group were condemned to learn only the most rudimentary concepts. At such a young age social hierarchy was quite literally integrated into lower school math classes and along with it, the stigma of different stratas.

While my group repeated addition and subtraction unit after unit, other classes were practicing their times tables and long division.

I am aware I may come from a more extreme circumstance, but ASL is not far off. Our school starts to segregate math  classes based on intellectual capability beginning in Grade 5. From the very beginning, our minds are bombarded with the notion that learning math in school is a competitive process where some students will get to excel and others will not.

While I acknowledge that math classes need to be divided based on rigor at a certain point, it is counterproductive to create these divisions so early as it stunts the growth of many future math learners.

But what is the issue with this? If you are going to be bad at math, why not be bad throughou your entire education pathway? As I see it, the issue with grouping mathematically talented kids so early on is that it excludes, and therefore repels students who would otherwise be late bloomers. It is difficult to fight your way up into the advanced level courses once you have already been sorted into the lower levels, which in turn prevents the progression of some students who may actually have an aptitude for the subject.

The system is also flawed in that it facilitates a stressful environment due to the selective nature of the process so early on. The pernicious aura that is created fosters an atmosphere not conducive for the purposes of learning math. On the first day of my Grade 8 math course at ASL, our teacher explained that in order to get into the next advanced level course, an 85 percent had to be achieved in the class. This created a learning environment driven by stress and fear.

To truly master math, students have to embrace the possibility of failure, frustration and trial and error. When someone is coming from a system that has either labelled them as a failure or created a studentunwilling to take risks, their ability to learn math is greatly hindered.

In order for math to be an enjoyable subject, an end must be put to the competitive selective processes that happens so early on. Math classes need to be taught in an innovative ways so when students grow up, instead of thinking “ugh, math” it becomes “oh, math.” Finally, students need to be willing to take a leap of faith into the subject. Math requires a great deal of failure, which oftentimes is intimidating. For students to truly conquer his or her fear of math they have to be willing to try things they have never done before, and keep thinking even after every ordinary method has already been exhausted.