I’m sitting at my fake wooden desk in Mrs. Glaser’s second-grade classroom. The #2 yellow pencil has recently been sharpened and the timer is set. Begins! 60, 59, 58 …. I shout the problems in my head: “Five plus 8” “Five plus 8” “Five plus 8!” Tick… my mind is a big block of ice. I take a deep breath to try to maintain my focus. This is a crazy minute Monday morning. I work as fast as I can to answer as many math questions as possible in 60 seconds.
Raise your hand if this description sounds familiar. I thought so. Are your memories of Mad Minute positive? Mostly not. In my experience as a middle and high school mathematician, I have rarely heard any adult (including math teachers) report so many positive memories of their early experiences with mathematics in school. why?
The problem is not with timed retrieval exercises like Mad Minute. In fact, there is a great deal of research support for consistent retrieval practice and self-testing for building a mechanism with number facts. The problem is that when I was eight, math was already connected in my mind with fear, shame, and anxiety. I didn’t want “The Crazy Minute” to reveal what I thought was true: I was a crook of a good math student; I wasn’t born a “mathematics person”.
Part of the reason for the high rates of math anxiety is that mathematics in the United States is largely viewed as a talent one is born with or not born with. It is the ultimate example of Carol Dweck’s “fixed mindset”, in which athletic ability is seen as a fixed entity that cannot be improved with practice. As a result, it is widely accepted (and sometimes lauded) to define the self as “not a mathematical person” and to simply withdraw from trying to gain confidence in quantitative fluency. I’m not talking about people choosing not to study calculus. I mean, adults with a college education often turn down a 20 percent tip estimate without a calculator. As several teachers told me with a sad laugh, it wouldn’t be OK in a restaurant for you to say you weren’t really a “reader” and someone could read the menu for you.
Unfortunately, this annoyance with mathematics is widespread in the general population and women tend to report higher mathematical anxiety than men. This is true for parents and it is true for teachers. In fact, elementary school teachers have some of the highest levels of anxiety in mathematics compared to other fields of study. In a particularly contrasting study by Sian Beilock, girls in first- and second-grade classrooms with high math-anxious teachers had lower math achievement and had more stereotypical beliefs about girls’ abilities. More than 90 percent of primary school teachers are female. Thus, math anxiety greets our students as soon as they enter school.
Math anxiety is an eroding factor in the talent pipeline in STEM fields. Contrary to what might be expected, it disproportionately affects high-ability students who fall behind effective mathematical strategies based on working memory to less efficient strategies. Imagine a student who has memorized an algorithm for finding the slope of a two-point line. Under pressure, they forget about the shortcut and resort to calculating altitude and running based on the graph. Math anxiety hurts those who have the most to lose. Given our cultural stereotypes about who is naturally gifted at math, the students most likely to “choke” under stress are talented girls and students of color.
This problem is very intransigent because it is based largely on cultural stereotypes that are passed down from adults to children and are difficult to change. However, there are a number of specific interventions supported by the research:
- To counter the idea that mathematics is an immutable ability, we must be cognizant of the way we talk about mathematics, especially around young children. As parents and educators, we can talk about mathematics with curiosity, interest, and excitement. We can count snowflakes and people at the holiday dinner table. We can catch ourselves up before we say, “Oh, I hated math in school!” A child is looking at us. We can model how we discover a math problem with our kids when we don’t know where to start.
- To promote early primary mathematics education, we must train and hire primary school mathematics professionals. As Belloc’s research indicates, it is imperative that elementary school students have mathematics teachers who are motivated and equipped to teach mathematics. We should invest in hiring these jobs.
- To get rid of the stereotypes that drive people away from mathematics, we can reduce the focus on mathematics as a competitive, fast-moving sport. Training tools like Mad Minute can be used more specifically to build a machine with the facts of numbers. We can make learning math a more collaborative, problem-based, and community-focused experience.
- To address the negative feelings that sometimes accompany math, we can normalize math anxiety as a common feeling that doesn’t have to dictate decisions. We can teach students to use reassessment techniques to harness anxiety as a form of energy that can fuel their hard work and improvement.
- To ensure mastery, we can hold our students to high standards by believing that every person is born capable of logical-mathematical thinking. This claim is supported by exciting work indicating a specific area of the human brain dedicated to numerical processing.
Anxiety about math is a drain on our collective enthusiasm for learning and growth. This New Year, let’s resolve to take this educational inflection point as an opportunity to reframe mathematical thinking as a wonderful tool with which every human mind is born.