Bad at math? Don’t tell your kids

MPR News

May 24, 2016

It doesn't matter if you're frightened of fractions or petrified of parabolas — stop saying you're bad at math.

Repeating that common phrase is spreading math anxiety "like a virus," according to Petra Bonfert-Taylor, a professor of engineering at Dartmouth who wrote about this issue in an op-ed for the Washington Post.

Math anxiety is "an actual thing, and it can be measured" Bonfert-Taylor told MPR News host Tom Weber. It can be exasperated by common classroom practices like timed tests or public grades.

It can also be made worse by hearing adults constantly say they hate math.

"For some reason, it's become a habit in our country for smart people to announce they are bad at math, and almost be proud of that fact," Bonfert-Taylor said, "They're thereby passing on this anxiety to future generations, priming them to believe: I'll just be bad at math."

Math anxiety has two major consequences, according to Gerardo Ramirez, an assistant professor of psychology at UCLA who also joined the conversation. First, people with math anxiety avoid situations that involve math. That includes everything from skipping math courses to avoiding calculating the tip at a restaurant in front of friends.

"All this avoidance leads you to know less math, so it makes your math anxiety worse," Ramirez said.

Second, "math anxiety creates these worries about failure that disrupt your ability to think clearly about math on the spot when you're solving it." That fear of failure is problematic, Ramirez said, because failure is an essential part of learning math.

What we can do about math anxiety

Change the style of classroom instruction

Bonfert-Taylor said factors like the pressure of timed tests and the risk of public embarrassment can cripple students.

Schools need to "change how we deliver instructions," she said. "Don't make it as much about competition but more about collaboration."

If you think your child has math anxiety, share your concerns with his or her teacher.

Admit that math is hard — but that failing is okay

"Help your child to see math is hard — it's not easy. I'm not going to sugar coat it: it's hard. But guess what? Hard things help you to learn them better. It's okay to redo things, it's okay to fail — failure is a means for deeper learning," Ramirez said.

Build an appreciation for the usefulness of mathematics

We don't need to quite as far as "algebra will one day save your life," but it is important to demonstrate how useful math is. If your child likes sports, have them calculate players' statistics. If your child likes to cook, demonstrate the role of math in doubling a recipe.

"To build a lasting interest and curiosity in mathematics is way more important than to force someone to find it beautiful," Bonfert-Taylor said.

Don't confuse performance with learning

How a student does on a math test is not always representative of how well they understand the concepts. Ramirez said it is important to recognize the difference between performance and learning.

Find a way for students to demonstrate their knowledge outside of a testing environment, if that induces anxiety.

Stop saying you're bad at math

Just stop.

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