Helping the Very Many Children Who Fear Math (1) By Adetola Salau
A note to readers: Over the holiday season of 2017, during time of reflection, I revisited why I remain a dedicated and resilient educator. What I will be sharing here is an integral part of my motivation and mission.
It is my hope that this will inspire a lot of us and lift the stigma we have around the devastation of failure.
When I was 9 and about to turn 10, I noticed that my teachers praised the boys more for the correct answers and I was considered an anomaly because I wanted to be first in the class. I desired more than anything to be regarded as a genius. In our home, intellectual prowess was revered and I lived in an academic environment where that same culture prevailed.
I was set and achieved my desire in primary school. It was the same in JSS1 1 (7th grade), where I was still getting high grades and receiving praise from my teachers and parents.
It fell apart in JSS2 (8th grade); then I was so lost in math class, and to compound matters our teachers glossed over a lot of explanations. In retrospect, more geometry is incorporated in math at that stage, with more introduction to proofs and deeper conceptualizing of the theories. I was adrift and began to sink in my math class.
To compound matters, our school began to read out grade positions during assembly. I loathed those constant reminders of my failure. My stomach tightened during those times and my heart beat faster; I longed to make myself invisible, but everyone knew who my parents were and my inability to be as smart as they were haunted me.
Yet, the following year I fell in love with Chemistry and decided to become a Chemical Engineer, which meant my fate was tied to math! How was I ever going to break free from my fear of math and achieve my dreams?
Over the years, I have had cause to reflect upon the destructive way we teach math and the harm it unleashes on our students.
I have met so many adults of various ages who lament, “If only I’d had a teacher as enthusiastic, passionate and above all as empathetic as you, my life would have been so different! Perhaps I would have become a doctor, which was my dream that was cut short by my fears of math.” Substitute the career choice of doctor and it would be other STEM fields they felt shut out of due to math.
There exists a high level of intensity of negative emotions around mathematics for most people. Mathematics, more than any other subject, has the ability to crush students’ spirits, and many adults do not move on from these negative experiences in school. Once the notion that they cannot do math, they often maintain a negative relationship with the subject for the rest of their lives.
I have discovered from experience that one superseding idea is where this math failure culminates from – that only some people can be good at math.
That single notion that math is a “gift” some people have and others don’t is the root cause for the anxiety.
Contrary to people’s beliefs, math isn’t about right and wrong answers.
Mathematics is a very broad and multidimensional subject that requires reasoning, creativity, connection making, and interpretation of patterns; it is a set of ideas that help illuminate the world; and it evolves. Math problems ought to depict the different ways in which people view math and the various methods they take to solve problems. With this evolution, watch students engage with math deeper.
It happened that way for me, I was confused about the Cartesian plane and graphing coordinates on it. I frequently confused x for y and vice versa. It was my mother who patiently deconstructed the difference between the x and y axis. Why one was called the independent variable and the other one, the dependent variable. What a world of difference this made! I was back on the path of loving math and achieving my dreams of being an engineer.
Part 2 coming up next week
Adetola Salau; Educator / Speaker / Author/ Social Entrepreneur / Innovator
She is an Advocate of STEM Education and is Passionate about Education reform. She is an innovative thinker and strives for our society & continent as a whole to reclaim it’s greatness. She runs an educational foundation with the mission to transform education.