News Article: Maths Anxiety is a growing phenomen

I think it is true of any subject that children enjoy it more if they feel successful at it. Conversely, if they feel less capable, their enjoyment will decrease. As adults, we are the same, but we forget just how much new information children are expected to assimilate each day, and how many opportunities they have to ‘fail’.

Maths is a unique subject in that it is seen as fundamentally important as English, yet children do not have the same constant access to good examples of maths practice in their lives. Primary teachers are often confident with English but much less so with maths, and their uncertainty comes across. Secondary maths teachers are then expected to counter the consequences of this imbalance but by the time the children arrive at secondary school, there is a lot of work to be done, and a lot of damage to be undone.

Over the years, in an attempt to improve education, we have focussed on reporting and recording results, and comparing schools, rather than investing in better classroom teaching. There have been some very positive steps – having a National Curriculum guarantees at least that everyone has access to the same basic set of knowledge. However, this national curriculum also means that teachers have higher expectations on them, to get every child to a certain standard of performance.

This national pressure on schools puts undue pressure on teachers and creates an anxious classroom from the top down. This approach to education is not reflective – there is no room to respond if children do not feel confident in a topic. Teachers are instead encouraged to go full steam ahead onto the next topic in a race to start working through past exam papers, and any children who have not grasped what was being taught are left to silently accept their confusion.

There is not enough time in a lesson to teach 30 children, manage their behaviour, keep the whole class on task AND give individual attention to each child.

I feel very lucky, as a tutor, to see the other side of this problem.

Often my students arrive at a lesson with concerns about their schoolwork, for example: “we were working on trigonometry in class today, but I didn’t understand how to rearrange the formula”, or “I can’t understand how to factorise quadratic formulae”, or a whole range of similar problems. When they sit down, I can see symptoms of anxiety in their expression, how tense their body is, even to the extent sometimes that their hands are trembling. It is lovely to be able to pick up the topic together, work through a simple problem and build up the complexity level at that child’s pace. We joke, use bright coloured pens, ask each other questions and work together until confidence returns. My favourite part of that lesson is when the student has an “Oh!” moment, when they have grasped what it was they didn’t understand, and it now seems so straightforward to them.

Sometimes it takes two or three lessons to achieve this level of success on a particular topic, but that is okay. The key is for the child to realise that not understanding something does NOT mean that they are stupid, but that they need to spend more time looking at it in different ways, until it DOES make sense. Once they grasp this key fact about learning, I know that they will be able to handle anything that school, and indeed life, throws at them.

“Maths anxiety” is yet another label and we need to be wary of a culture that needs to label everything. It is simply the feeling of fear of failure. It is, nonetheless, a real and extremely detrimental emotion. The key is to provide supportive, collaborative learning, where children feel that the teacher is on their side, working with them, and not judging them.

See the original article from The Guardian here

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