Talk to Children about Math Early and Often to Combat Math Anxiety

I recall the stories my mom told me about how she and her fellow classmates in grade school had to demonstrate knowledge of their “times tables.” The teacher would line students in front of the room to recite their tables from the ones to the twelves. What I remember most about her retelling is not the “butterflies in the stomach” feeling she said she experienced, but the confident assurance that she and her classmates knew their tables. How did the students study for these drills? Did the acquisition come from studying or the daily oral drilling? Mathematics instruction has changed for the better since my mom was a child, but it remains the Achilles’ heel for American students.

The National Council for Teachers of Mathematics’ (NCTM) Principles and Standards for School Mathematics (2000) advocates building deep conceptual knowledge in mathematics before drill and practice. This viewpoint is different from the mathematics instruction of my mom’s era when drill and practice was considered the best practice for attaining math skills. While I wholeheartedly agree with the NCTM, I think that there is something to be gained from oral assessment in mathematics. In my mom’s experience, oral assessment gave both the teacher and student an authentic means of assessing acquisition of multiplication facts. In today’s K-12 classrooms it is rare to witness oral assessment used in any formalized manner and definitely not in mathematics classrooms. You would be hard pressed to find much talking going on during mathematics instruction or assessment.

All throughout school, I never considered math my best subject. I was a solid and sometimes borderline “B” student in math because of help from my mom. During grocery store trips when I was a child, my mom would ask me to figure out math problems. She would point to items and say, “These are 3 for $5.00, but these are $1.50 each. What is the best deal?” She would also say, “These are buy one get one free, but nothing is ever free, so how much would one cost?” I hated being put on the spot like this, but she seemed to genuinely want my help. As the dutiful daughter, I would work it out. If I was right, she would affirm the answer. If I was wrong, she would talk it out with me until we got the right answer. The oral nature of her mathematics education seemed to make talking about math second nature. It helped me both then and now to see the benefit of reasoning orally. I was always anxious about math because I never felt like I truly understood many of the concepts especially as I took higher level math. I could memorize really well and relied on that to get me through. To my surprise, I qualified to take accelerated math classes all throughout school which increased my anxiety level.

I have found that most people dislike math, and are adverse to talking about the subject. In my graduate math class on how to teach mathematics in elementary education, the instructor gave us a problem to solve. He encouraged us to work alone for a couple of minutes and then confer with a partner to discuss our problem solving strategies. The vast majority of us worked alone and never consulted a partner. My hunch was that most of us didn’t want to broadcast our lack of knowledge or confusion on the subject. Since taking this class, I have had a paradigm shift when it comes to math, due in part to the excellent instruction of that professor and my experience of having to teach math. I have relearned and in some cases learned for the first time many of the underlying concepts in math. Consequently, I no longer see it as the enigma it once was. The oral nature of teaching and instruction in which I have to explain concepts to children played an indelible role in my shift. The process of preparing for math instruction and having to explain mathematical concepts and reasoning to my students has increased my own mathematical knowledge. This has made me wonder the extent to which discussion and oral reasoning can increase student’s math knowledge. When I have taught math to younger elementary students, many of them are eager to raise their hands to answer questions about math even if they do not know the answer. In older students, I have found that this eagerness disappears. Students would rather labor away in their own individual silos in pursuit of the right answer. Once that answer has been reached, they do not want to talk about the process. The over focus on standardized, multiple choice assessments has reinforced the silo mentality among students in mathematics.

Math anxiety is learned overtime. Parents can mitigate this anxiety by talking about math in a non-threatening environment. Encourage your child to talk out a math quandary. You can do this by example. Let them hear you figuring out loud. As shared earlier, my mother did this sort of thing with me in the grocery store. I did the same with my daughter when she was smaller. For example, I would give her a pad and pencil in the grocery store with the directive to round the prices to the nearest dollar and keep a running total of our groceries. I will admit that as she has gotten older she has rejected my math talk, but I continue sometimes out of necessity. There was the time she overtipped the hair stylist because she was fuzzy on her percentages. We had a long talk about that one with a lesson in figuring percents mentally. On one occasion when we were out to eat, I brought up the lesson again to see if she could figure the tip percentage. My mother wanted to show her how to find the percentage using multiplication. When my mom pulled out a pencil and paper, my daughter groaned and grudgingly worked out the problem. My mother’s algorithm method was traditional, but it didn’t teach the number sense gleaned from talking it out using a benchmark. For example, knowing how to find 10 percent of something can help in finding most any other percentage.

During these conversations, it’s okay for all parents to admit if they do not know the answer. Today math is taught less with algorithms and more with a stress on using a plethora of strategies to carry out mathematical operations. I know that parents balk at the “new fangled” ways students are learning math and thus don’t feel equip to help students with homework. I would encourage parents to enter into a dialogue with children about the ways they are learning math. This may involve asking your child’s teacher for recommendations on websites, workbooks, or other resources. In the long run, it will teach your child that math is not something to be feared but embraced and explored.

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