One teacher’s battle with her students’ maths anxiety
I have children entering my Year 5 classroom with very fixed ideas about maths lessons, exhibiting symptoms of maths anxiety.
At a relatively young age, children are already defining themselves as “good” or “bad” at maths and this cycle is very difficult to break.
For many of my pupils, it is the binary nature of the subject that creates so much grief. The answer to a sum can be either right or wrong, creating situations in which a pupil is worried about sharing their ideas for fear of being told that their answer is incorrect. This feeling of being put on the spot can cause stress, fear and anxiety
Pupils also compare themselves to their peers and will often state quite confidently who they consider to be the “best” at maths. Sometimes it is the child who gets the best test scores; sometimes it’s simply the one who talks the most during the lesson. But whoever it is will often display a confidence in their ability that their peers might struggle to match.
It is not the easiest of problems to tackle, but after some research and reflection, I think a twofold approach is needed:
Reduce the number of occasions in which a pupil might feel under pressure during a lesson
Give pupils a chance to share their answer with a “talk partner” before taking answers from the class (it’s less likely to be a wrong answer if you both got the same one!); try to limit the use of peer assessment in maths lessons (excellent for editing stories, quite stressful if you’re worried about your times-tables test); limit or even ban “hands up” for sharing answers – instead, use mini whiteboards to assess understanding or ask pupils to feed back as a pair or group.
Create an environment in which getting answers wrong is all right – it is simply part of the learning process
Growth mindset is one approach, but I also want to discuss with my pupils the importance of being challenged, and that getting all the answers right probably means they’re doing the wrong questions! Teacher reactions to incorrect answers are also vitally important – do I always give the pupil a chance to explain their thinking or simply dismiss an incorrect answer? Do I allow pupils enough time to make corrections in their books and improve their last piece of work?
If these strategies prove to be successful, I might findings from some of those next steps to determine the best way to get that message to teachers, and maybe the parents through teachers,” she says.
First and foremost, and until solid causes and solutions are offered, they are keen to raise awareness of maths anxiety in the hope that it leads to action. It is too easy, say many in the field, to dismiss maths anxiety as “made up” or an “excuse not to do maths”. encourage my pupils to no longer hate maths lessons. But will they love maths?
To achieve this, we have to question the whole nature of maths lessons and how we share this subject with our pupils.
If you ask any maths fan why they feel so passionately about their subject, they won’t cite gimmick-filled lessons as their answer.
Instead, they will talk about the intricacies and patterns of the numerical system and how they intertwine. It is these links that need to be fostered in maths lessons and need to be woven into the basic framework of our teaching.
Children need to be shown how each new concept fits with their previous learning; how it will move on to more exciting learning in the future; and be given the chance to investigate the new idea.
So my overall plan is: reduce the pressure, increase confidence and allow time for activities that will help develop a passion for maths.
Quite a tall order. Will this create a class of confident, passionate mathematicians? I will have to let you know this time next year…
Seeing it as a real issue is the biggest leap to beginning to address it, says Gane: “We need to take it seriously, in the first instance. This is very important.”
*Not pupil’s real name
Jennifer Richardson is a journalist and lecturer at Kingston University. She tweets @Journojennifer