Allaying the fear of maths

Shankar Narayanswamy, Dec, 13, 2012:

MATHS FUN

This is the land where ‘0’ was invented by the great mathematician Aryabhatta. Vedic maths, an alternate system of learning maths also originated in India. The concept of zero or nothing defines the most cryptic problem of any subject in the universe.

Until the beginning of the previous century we had the best minds in maths who did not even go through formal schooling. Why is the reason for the decline in mathematical knowledge among the people? One of the reasons is that the subject is not taught and learnt in the mother tongue.

But English has been accepted as our own language unlike the Chinese who have rejected it outright and even do their internet business in their mother tongue. But we have to find a way out from the declining interest in maths and ways to improve the situation.

Math phobia or the fear of Mathematics is a feeling of anxiety that stops one from efficiently tackling mathematical problems. People think math is an extremely tough subject. This negative attitude stops them from focusing on the subject/problem they are tackling. Most commonly just before tests or exams they become nervous as they are not prepared. Some even learn and understand math but during the time of the test fear clouds their minds resulting in a mental block. They conclude that math is too tough for them.

The following are the main reasons for this fear and the possible remedies to overcome them.

Lack of preparation

Maths is a subject that needs a lot of preparation. Unlike other subjects where almost all things can be visualised in the real world, maths is an abstract subject. Logical thinking is an integral part of the subject. Except for elementary maths which can relate to real life objects and situations most of the higher level maths needs abstract thinking on the part of the student. Abstract thinking becomes difficult because of the multiple thoughts that occupy the students’ mind relating to the material world. Thinking needs patience as the result may not always be correct. This demoralises the student who tries to voluntarily distract himself with more real life objects and situations.

Reading maths

Maths cannot be studied by reading, it has to be worked out. When we study a subject we read the book and in the process catch the words and phrases in the book and try to understand the sentences. But maths is not a group of words and paragraphs. Each step in maths is important and is the outcome of the previous step. Maths cannot be read but has to be studied and practiced. We may feel that we have understood a step while reading but while solving the same problem we may stumble if there is not enough practice. This capacity of solving is acquired only through repeated practice. Each maths problems needs to be thought separately and independently. So problems in maths have to be practiced repeatedly instead of reading.

Attitude of elders/ teachers

It is well known that good teachers love the subject they are teaching. As a teacher of other subjects, if you have a negative attitude towards mathematics, it passes on to the children you are teaching. Similarly, if parents show any kind of negative attitude towards maths at home it immediately passes on to the sub-conscious mind of the child and gets deeply imprinted. This shows up as resistance to the learning of the subject in school. The child is easily distracted in a classroom while maths is taught.

Remedies

The remedies to maths phobia must be holistic and multi-dimensional. The problems must be addressed at all levels by parents, students and also teachers.Role of Parents: From a very young age the child must be subtly convinced by the parents about the importance and the necessity of learning maths. Parents must ensure that the child is continuously thinking about solutions by giving them counting aids. Simple playing blocks can help the child learn maths in a fun way.

Thinking in abstract terms is an important initiation that has to be done at home. The formative years at home play a very important role in the attitude towards maths.

Role of student: The student might get more motivated if she/he knows the areas in which the study and use of maths is essential. So many times kids question the necessity of things they study. Emphasising and pointing out the everyday applications of maths may help them. The basic math or arithmetic used by lower grades is obviously needed in everyday life: measuring, estimating the bill when shopping for grocery, cooking, sewing, woodwork are typical examples. Understanding percentage, large numbers, and basic statistics are essential to understand information in newspapers and schoolbooks. As adults, we need to calculate taxes, compare payment methods, figure out loans and home budgets.

Where is algebra and trigonometry and other forms of higher math needed? Though all branches of maths are needed everywhere and anywhere and in all walks of life, chiefly, if the student wants to study science, electronics, commerce, physics, math or various other fields further in the college or university then this wing of maths science is all the more important. Algebra also develops thinking skills. The policy of the government that till the level of 10th standard a child has to learn maths is a step in preparing them in a society where survival of the fittest is the rule.

Role of teachers: Awarding marks in maths has to be seen in two dimensions. One is the answer and the other is the steps. Answers must be awarded minimal marks and the steps the maximum. Focusing more on the process or method enables students to make mistakes, but not ‘fail at math.’

The first step of solving any problem must be given maximum weightage since this will mould the mind of the student to look at the problem in a different angle rather than just write down the answers. Appreciating the first step encourages the student to take the next step. If the marks are awarded based on the last step everyone will fear taking the first step itself. The sight of the student must not be on the last correct step, but the first step.

One of the reasons for math anxiety is the way math is often taught as, “there is only one way to do this, and you need to do learn it and do it right.” Students can be better motivated if they are asked open questions, involved in the development of concepts, given very open-ended exercises. Granted, this kind of teaching style may require a lot of planning from the teacher, probably a good understanding in math, and good materials.

Tests are a part of school but they don’t need to be the ultimate goal. The goal is to learn math so the child can use it in her life. Tests, especially timed tests, and the way they are valued so high are one main reason for math anxiety in school kids.

Role of good health: Several studies have shown that relaxation techniques can be used to help alleviate anxiety related to mathematics. One strategy advocated is relaxation exercises. Studies show that by practicing relaxation techniques on a regularly basis for 10–20 minutes at a time, students can significantly reduce their anxiety. Deep breathing exercises are proved to increase the analytical ability of the students which can make the process of thinking very easy and fun for the students.

To sum up Maths can be a fun subject for the student. Persistent practice and a positive attitude will definitely instil a greater level of confidence in the minds of the students.

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