My Fear of Math Phobias


There is one idea that I would love to disappear completely from math discussions: “math phobia.” Vamoose! Vanish! Evanesco! Of all the ideas that are harmful or destructive to students’ acquisition of math ideas, “math phobia” is one of the worst.

Yet, I hear it all the time. I hear it from adults all the time. I hear it from parents. What is worst of all is that I hear it from other teachers. “I am not good at math”; “I never did understand that”; “go ask your dad”; and the darndest of them all: “I hate math.” To beat all, they say it right in front of kids–their own kids and students.  Sometimes, I’m not sure if they are calling themselves or the math itself stupid.

Now, I am not saying that there is no such thing as math phobia. I am sure that some people actually run in fear when they see numbers on street signs. I am certain that somewhere, men and women are cowering, shivering in their closets because they read “¼ cup of sugar” in a recipe, or a telephone number flashed up on the screen when they were watching the television.

What I am saying, though, is that these phrases and attitudes give kids a free pass. They hear the adults walking around dismissing their own mental power all the time. So they do it, too. Kids become lethargic. Kids start saying, jokingly at first, that they aren’t good at math. But by the fifth grade, I see many kids completely checked out. It’s not that they couldn’t understand the math problems. They simply have become so used to not putting in the required brain power (which is not that much voltage, incidentally).

So parents, I implore you: zip those math-phobic lips! Pretend that you love math DESPITE all the damaging math classes you had as a youth. Refuse to pass the buck to your partner who “has the math smarts in the family.”  Instead, each time you notice the beauty in a flower or the symmetry in a piece of artwork, declare, “Ah! Look at the geometry on that puppy!”

This may drastically change the way you interact with your students around math and around homework. Instead of the instructional coach, you are now fellow math adventurer. Talk less about how to do the math and more about what it makes you think of. Where do you see the patterns in the real world? Where does geometry show up in art and architecture? Where do fractals sprout up in the coral reefs and forests?

One more thing, don’t be afraid of pointing out short cuts. If your kid is spending much extra time and effort on a problem which has a more direct and elegant solution, go ahead and say, “Son, have you ever thought of [blah blah blah]?” Or, “Daughter of mine, I see that you are stumped here, but maybe you could solve an easier problem.”  What this will roll model is that mathematicians aren’t into punishing themselves. We are all about making work easier; making the world around us easier to understand. What is so scary about that?

8 thoughts on “My Fear of Math Phobias”

  1. Short cuts can be a double-edged sword. I worry about the “just do it this way because it works” short-cut, especially when the point of the lesson is to generate a deeper understanding.

  2. To Matt. Check out one of my first posts:

    To Deborah. When I was a kid, in England, we always put headers above the places (until we really knew what we were doing.
    2 3 5
    -1 7 2
    Then the “one’ borrowed from the hundreds column is more obviously 100, or ten tens.
    I think they still do it, but I have not seen it in use in the USA. We use “units” instead of “ones”, which to my mind is way more sensible.

    1. Yes! I completely agree! This truly speaks to the importance of the language we use! In our newly adopted math curriculum, the smallest base-10 piece is called a ‘unit.’ I will use that word in the future, rather than the abstract ‘ones.’ Thank you!

  3. I hear this often at conference time when I’m talking with families of students who struggle with math. Can you imagine how hard that child is going to struggle the next time they don’t understand something? Probably not much – after all, they think the inability is a matter of genetics! Who would struggle against a force like that?

    I never let these comments go unchallenged. We are all capable of understanding and appreciating the world of pattern and order given the chance. This is pretty much the entire argument behind reform-oriented math: it is not for the few, but rather for everyone.

  4. To Matt: I am SO happy that you bring this up! As conference week is fast approaching, what I am dreading the most is sharing student growth and having a family member declare that they were never good at math as an explanation of why their child is struggling. At the beginning of the year, I did a great deal of intentional work with my class about how the brain reacts to mistakes. This is a good reminder to keep that conversation alive.

    Today, I was working with one of my students (a girl), who refused to try a multi-digit subtraction problem. The reason that she gave me for not doing the problem is that she is horrible at math and that she will never be good at it. Hearing this statement broke my heart, especially hearing it from a girl. It reminded me of the Jo Boaler class I took online through Stanford University, who so eloquently spoke about the importance of understanding multiple learning styles and the impacts on confidence and learning in relation to how girls learn and feel about math. We had a powerful conversation about how the words we say in our heads impact our learning. After that, she started trying, and got the correct difference! Yay! This was an exciting example to her that it requires effort and confidence to solve any problem. I will definitely continue this conversation with her.

    Also, I love, love, love that you addressed finding shortcuts. As I was working with my daughter last night, I realized very quickly that her homework included beautiful and exciting patterns in numbers. For example:

    13, 18, 23, ____, 33, ____, _____

    The directions said to count up by 5s. As I watched my daughter count laboriously on her fingers by 5 each time, I noticed that she became increasingly frustrated. Rather than count on fingers by 5, I suggested that she try to notice a pattern that emerged. In the ones (or units) place, the numbers alternate between 3 and 8. In the tens place, the pattern goes 10, 10, 20, 20, 30, 30, 40, 40. By recognizing the pattern, that’s all she needed to become excited about what she was doing. It made math homework time together so much fun!

  5. I tell my students the job of math class isn’t to be able to do harder and harder math, but to make hard math easier and easier. This is not only true (well we do end up doing harder math) but gets additional buy in from some of the struggling kids. “You mean, this will make math easier?” Yes!

  6. I’ve heard before that math anxiety is a real thing. I read this in Arthur Baroody’s “Fostering Children’s Mathematical Power,” and he recommends strategies that allow children to actually visualize math and understand it conceptually. I’m sure you know this already, but I don’t think parents know this. I sometimes wonder if math workshops for parents would help them combat their own fears and begin to understand math more conceptually.

    Great read! Thanks!

  7. What a great series of comments. I think that math phobia is a culturally generated thing. If culture can create it, culture can get rid of it. That is what we are doing every day in our classes. Teachers are culture creators.

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