The Cure to Math Anxiety

Posted by Sergio on Apr 25, 2016

This week I’ll be looking at a Ted Talk by John Bennett on “Why Math Instruction is Unnecessary” and an article on by Richard Paul about the importance of questions in learning.

John Bennett believes that the reason Mathematics education has suffered in the last 40 years is because of ‘Math anxiety’. That is that students don’t feel confident about the mathematics and so stress and fear prevent them from actively engaging with the subject. However Richard Paul believes it is because of textbook style questions being regurgitated by teachers which harm the process of understanding and stop students thinking about the content.

From my own experience I lean closer towards Bennett’s beliefs, given that I believe the reduced stress from retaking a year of A level is what allowed me to pass Mathematics. Furthermore, I believe that these issues of stress cannot be overcome by good teaching, but by empathy and understanding. With that said, I still think there is some merit to Paul’s comment and I believe that the type of questions we ask can help reduce this Maths anxiety.

Dan Mayer’s vision of teaching would have us create fun, interactive and thoughtful lessons that unlock the understanding behind topics because the questions are relatable and encourage discovery. I believe Mayer is successful because he understands and empathises with the effect that Math Anxiety has on his students. This is similar to Bennett who employs the use of fun brain games to instil these analytical techniques into his students, training them to make inductive steps when learning the Mathematics. The kind of questions and tasks they propose to their classes rarely feel like traditional Math questions and so put many of the students at ease. As educators I believe we need to emphasize non-threatening, relatable and fun questions in order to gain the most thought from our students.

This made me think about Dweck and setting. Dweck believes that students who are regarded as ‘smart’ tend to be afraid of failure and thus may avoid challenges that would threaten that image. Furthermore struggling students avoid challenges because they fear the damage to their esteem. It is for this reason that she and other professionals call on this idea of ‘Growth Mind-set’ to make students aware of their potential and the importance of effort and to give them the confidence to not give up.

Most professionals seem to agree that engagement with the subject can lead to good understanding. What’s difficult is creating the circumstances where all children can engage and be thoughtful about the Mathematics they learn. The fact that Bennetts story through teaching ends on him listening to and understanding the students makes me reflect on what students need from a teacher and the give and take that exists within a classroom. From Mayer to Robinson to Skemp to Willingham I believe the most important thing I have taken is the need for teachers to be observant and listen to their students and to adapt their approach by class. To open up Mathematics as a discussion of ideas and discover the Mathematics together. To me this presents both the greatest challenge and the most exciting one in teaching.

Richard Paul –
John Bennett –

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