The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

One Way to Cure Math Anxiety

on June 14, 2017

Today’s post recounts information from two articles in the May 17th edition of Education Week: “How Much Math Anxiety Is Too Much?” and “Do Digital Games Improve Children’s Math Skills?”, plus my letter in reply, which was published on June 7th. Read the whole story below.

Ironically, Education Week posted an article about a serious school problem and another one that suggested a solution to that problem in the same issue, with the second article right above the first.

The problem article started off by describing the severe anxiety of Levi Vaughn, a 5 year-old kindergartner, who fell apart openly whenever math was being taught in his classroom, and his mother’s distress about those actions. Most of the rest of the article was about research studies on math anxiety for people of all ages; but I didn’t feel that any of them suggested an explanation of Levi’s anxiety or a solution to the anxiety problems other students might have.

Instead, what his mother said led me in a different direction altogether: there was something very wrong with the way math was being taught at her child’s classroom. She explained that “His math papers get pulled out and he’s in full-blown crisis mode.” Math papers in kindergarten? Does that mean that young children are being taught to add and subtract numbers formally that, as yet, have no meaning for them? If so, I’m amazed that all the other kids in the class aren’t also having anxiety fits.

Right after reading that article I moved on to the other one on the page where there was a very different picture of math instruction and student responses. It told the story of 5th graders who were spending a lot of class time playing math games. Those games covered a wide level of difficulty from single digit addition to multiplication and division by percentages, and weak students were deliberately matched with strong ones. In the beginning, the strong players always won the games, but soon the weak players began to win some of the time.

According to the teacher, what was happening was that the weaker students were learning how to solve various types of math problems by observing and remembering what their opponents did. In addition they were enjoying their games. A further benefit was that the games provided continual positive or corrective feedback to individual students that the teachers did not have time to give.

From my perspective, such classroom math games, when carefully chosen and assigned to the right students, are a powerful way to avoid or cure math anxiety. If that strategy and other positive ones can become regular practices in teaching math, there will be little or no need for more research on math anxiety.

Here’s my letter to Education Week.

To the editor:

  Although math anxiety is a sad and significant barrior to student learning, it is not an unsolvable problem. Ironically, an article published in the same issue of   Education Week suggests a good solution: math games.

 Working with numbers, just for the fun of it, develops student’s skills and makes them feel comfortable with various operations. If kindergartners who suffer from severe math anxiety were given simple games with numbers appropriate for their age group—between zero and ten—instead of math problems on paper, many young children might start their schooling with the conviction that math is, and will continue to be, fun.

       Joanne Yatvin

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