A significant amount of research has been undertaken on maths anxiety in children and how an established "fear of mathematics" can result in low levels of confidence - a problem that parents and teachers have been observing in students increasingly around the world.
Below are the top 3 researched and documented reasons for Maths anxiety in children, (and in some cases even in adults), and some suggestions on how we can help students overcome these:
#1 The emphasis on procedure
According to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER 2016), only 43% of grade 8 students tested could do simple division problems, making them 3-4 levels behind their grade-level1. Another research paper titled ‘The Untapped Math Skills of Working Children in India: Evidence, Possible Explanations and Implications’ presented that only one-third of the children surveyed could divide and only 21% could subtract in a written test. However, when the same children were offered a problem in terms of market transactions, over 90% were able to successfully perform the arithmetic operations. The researchers reported, “children showed greater mathematics skills in the market because they could match a concrete context with the abstract notion of a number”2. The traditional method of teaching arithmetic operations on numbers requires the child to engage procedurally with place-value and carry-over functions, which may be harder for them if the context of the problem is not closer to their own sense of meaning. Children need to develop a sense of numbers before they can start working with complex algorithms. Thus, we need to balance the classroom approach between giving tangible, engaging, contextual problems, whilst also encouraging the understanding of fundamentals and the use of procedure.
#2 The teaching and testing approach
In the traditional system of classroom teaching and testing, there is a heavy emphasis on accuracy and speed in a mathematics session. However, according to Jo Boaler, Professor of Mathematics Education, Stanford University, timed tests cause the early onset of maths anxiety for students across the achievement range3, leading to low self-confidence, maths avoidance, and negative experiences of maths throughout life. Also, with differentiated learning levels in a classroom, teachers have a genuine struggle with knowing the level of maths understanding and misconceptions of each child, thus making it humanly impossible to address individual deficiencies. With the ease of access to calculators and computing devices, we need to enable our classrooms to offer a self-paced and personalized, adaptive environment for each child to thrive, without stress. Children today learn through active, immediate feedback, which is ideal for them to remediate their approach by their own self.
#3 The adult’s approach to math
Very often, we hear parents casually remark-“ I’m not a maths person” or if a child is good at maths, then we hear remarks such as “Oh, s/he must be a genius!”. Most of the times, parents also tend to address maths homework towards the end of the assigned tasks, after completing the “easy” subjects. The maths phobia is very much in the air and our children catch it, without our knowledge, thus either instilling fear of the subject or building on the notion that proficiency in this subject is reserved for a select few.
As the research continues to uncover more deterrents in the world of maths for children, it’s apparent the narrative around maths needs to change to something that is enjoyable, fun and rewarding, rather than the association with negative adjectives such as difficult, boring and abstract. One solution being utilised in schools across the country is through the integration of online maths games in the classroom, which are enabling children to apply the concepts and theories of maths in an engaging environment. As offline activities help children to engage in brainstorming and teamwork, online games also help provide a platform for them to develop their skills through perseverance and to achieve more through their grit and determination, which are two key elements of doing well in both games and maths.
One example of an online maths resource that aims to help tackle problems such as maths anxiety is mangahigh.com. Click for more information or see how you can get involved with their Legends of Maths Diwali Competition 2018.