There’s a lot of speculation about what causes math anxiety, or math phobia as it’s sometimes called. It seems pretty apparent that it’s much more common in women than men. Some of it has to do with a long history of culture that supports gender differences. Others postulate that is has to do with some embarrassing moment, like a math error in front of the class.
Many actually tie math anxiety to money.
I find that one challenging. It’s an interesting belief. Pretty much the only thing money and math have in common are the symbols they use. These days, there is very little math needed to do money. We don’t even need to add or subtract.
I have great empathy for the math. They certainly didn’t choose it consciously. It seems pretty logical to me that if one has dyslexia, math is one of the things that would make you anxious. Knowing that if you transpose two digits, the difference will always be divisible by nine is hardly a consolation. You’ll still have the wrong answer.
The cause of math anxiety that I’d like to talk a bit about is something like transference, or ‘reading the emotional field’. Others have referenced it. I just think the effects and results are bigger than we think.
Let’s go back to elementary school, or what I called grammar school. An article in Wikipedia on Math Anxiety says: “Students often develop mathematical anxiety in schools, often as a result of learning from teachers who are themselves anxious about their mathematical abilities in certain areas. Typical examples of areas where math teachers are often incompetent or semi-competent include fractions, long division, algebra, geometry “with proofs”, and calculus. In many countries, would-be math teachers are required to obtain passing grades of only 51% on mathematics exams, so that a math student who has failed to understand 49% of the math syllabus throughout his or her education can, and often does, become a math teacher. His or her fears and lack of understanding then pass naturally to his or her students.” Now I don’t know if people who understood only half of their math education “often” become teachers, but certainly many do. And many of us have had to endure one of them somewhere in our education.
We know that children learn from watching adults. The part I think that we don’t really acknowledge is that what children learn isn’t based on what the adults say. It isn’t based specifically even on what adults do. It’s based on the emotions that the adults express while they are saying or doing. Are the adults happy or are they anxious? Are they calm or worried? If they say they’re happy, but act worried, what do you think the kid picks up on?
Remember that 2nd or 3rd grade teacher you had. You know, the one you really liked, the one that was so nice. If she somehow subtly expressed that math made her the least bit hinky, and if you liked her, and wanted her to like you, then you would at some level adopted her perspective. Part of how we create relationships is to adopt similar beliefs and perspectives, and I think most of that isn’t really overt. I think it comes from sensing what is going on and by reading the emotional field.
This reading the emotional field thing I mention is like the mood in the room. You’ve all experienced that. You walk in a room and just know that something is amiss, something is off or wrong. Children start to pick that up long before they get language. And we continue to develop that sense. We know when someone says “everything is fine” and in truth everything isn’t fine. So when the teacher isn’t comfortable with the subject, we sense there is something off or wrong with the subject.
It’s somewhat chicken and egg. Who knows when the Math Anxiety thing for women started or why, but it sure has perpetuated. And I think it’s more based on mood and subtle emotional nuance than we’d like to admit.
What do you think?