Here’s an interesting article on Math Anxiety — it’s nothing groundbreaking, but it’s an interesting topic to revisit every now and then. Here’s what I think the key sentence is:
Because understanding numerical magnitude is a foundation for other calculations, Mr. Ansari suggests that small, early deficiencies in that area can lead to difficulties, frustration, and negative reactions to math problems over time.
So it starts out small: you’re just a little less adept at counting. This “deficiency” (I’d like to point out that it has to be compared to some standard to be considered a deficiency, a standard which is something established — perhaps improperly or at least inadvisably — through social behaviors ) then compounds (which is to say, whatever skill is there doesn’t compound as fast as it would if it was larger ex ante) and this leads to all sorts of psychological baggage. The psychological baggage then causes actual problems in calculation:
During stress, there is more activity in the amygdala than the prefrontal cortex; even as minor a stressor as seeing a frowning face before answering a question can decrease a student’s ability to remember and respond accurately.
“When engaged in mathematical problem-solving, highly math-anxious individuals suffer from intrusive thoughts and ruminations,” said Daniel Ansari, the principal investigator for the Numerical Cognition Laboratory at the University of Western Ontario, in London, Ontario. “This takes up some of their processing and working memory. It’s very much as though individuals with math anxiety use up the brainpower they need for the problem” on worrying.
It’s a vicious cycle, we are to think. I can’t help feeling that this article, for all its talk about fixing the classrooms, is an excuse-in-the-making, a reason to say “But it’s not my fault I can’t do math.” After all, if you fix the classrooms, the thinking seems to go, you won’t need to fix the students. Because it’s not their fault, right?
Well maybe it’s not. And maybe it is a good idea not to make a bad situation worse by having all sorts of math bias in the classroom. But at some level, it doesn’t even matter if it’s the students’ fault or not. They have a problem, and it’s substantially interfering with their ability to live life to the fullest, by making them ignorant. Perhaps, and this is a radical suggestion, in addition to trying to minimize the sorts of situations that can perpetuate this vicious cycle, we should also consider that the students should take responsibility and fix themselves.
I am rather inclined to think that there’s a good way to deal with anxieties of all stripes. Many will think I jest, but I’m entirely serious: The Litany. It may not work the first time. It may not work the second. But Litanies are made to be repeated, over and over again.
Eventually it will take.