Monday, November 12, 2012

Math Anxiety Linked to Physical Pain?

Math taks help us teach children to teach themselves math
From November 2 to November 8, three stories in Time Magazine, The Atlantic, and even Wired Magazine have discussed recent findings that math anxiety can activate pain areas in our brain.

But that is changing for students in several schools I’d like to highlight. First up is the new Education Achievement Authority (EAA) district in Detroit, Michigan.

The EAA has turned the tables on teaching, with the letters “SCL” (standing for “student-centered learning”) ringing out of the mouths of principals and students across each of the fifteen schools. I just flew back from a visit to the EAA where School Improvement Network caught on camera the trials, difficulties and successes of this new education model.

Where math is concerned, I saw a class of 12-year-old kids listen carefully to their teacher when she turned down the radio for a few moments of brief instruction about changing centers. The kids quickly and quietly changed their activities and got straight to work. They weren’t mindless automatons; they were engaged. They wanted to switch and learn math skills in several different ways. When the kids switched, the radio went back on, and the children kept learning.

This teacher (soon to be highlighted in an upcoming PD 360 video) had excellent classroom management, to be sure. But that’s not her secret to a great classroom atmosphere in an area that has had chronically terrible behavior for decades. Her secret is that she and the EAA are providing students with methods to teach themselves, with significant support from a teacher, and thereby eliminate the anxiety over math or school in general.

The second example is from South Jordan, Utah.

Kalina Potts is a teacher who is teaching multistep word problems in her math class (you can watch the video for free here). Potts is teaching her lesson by using Common Core Math Standards 4.OA.3 and MP.1, 3, & 4.

“I think the hardest part is just figuring out what you’re supposed to do,” says Stephen, a student in Potts’s class. “The math problems itself like division, multiplication, and everything like that isn’t so hard. It’s just figuring out which one you’re supposed to do with which numbers and everything like that.”

In other words, Stephen and his classmates aren’t just following steps—they are learning how to learn. So rather than becoming anxious about whether or not they done the problem “right,” the students are learning for themselves how to solve a problem and why they choose to solve it that way.

It is my estimation that the fear we experience when confront with math problems is that we are faced with real-world issues and no homework instructions for how to accomplish them. But in both the EAA and in Ms. Potts’s class, students aren’t just learning how to follow directions; they are learning how to own their own experience with math.

What are some of your favorite methods for teaching math? How are math tasks going on your classrooms? Let’s talk about it in the comments!


  1. I am a high school math teacher that sees students struggling with math every day. And yes, most of the struggles they are having are in the area of anxiety due to fear of missing a problem. I work with students who are just afraid to take the first step to doing a problem. I try to model for them strategies for solving any problem and not just a set of procedures you do for a standard problem. One of my biggest concerns is that students can't generalize what they know to be able to attack any problem they encounter. Instead, they look for a procedure for a specific type of problem and when that doesn't work, they quickly bail on the problem. I have the most success when I can show students it is OK to get it wrong or to not know what to do, but to give them multiple ways to address a problem so that eventually they will be able to work through any problem they come across. I struggle with teachers that show students one way to do a problem and then get frustrated when the student can't generalize to a similar problem that may be changed slightly. They are basically setting the student up for failure and the students' anxiety is validated. Math is difficult but we need to work with students to develop an arsenal of techniques to address any problem.

  2. Fear we experience when confront with math problems is that we are faced with real-world issues and no homework instructions for how to accomplish them.