One teacher’s bat­tle with her stu­dents’ maths anx­i­ety

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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

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