I recently came across this post bringing up an issue in Mathematics which has an impact on learning across the nation, for adults and children:
The natural reaction to anxiety in Maths is avoidance. Even in members of teaching staff there are some who feel they are ‘no good’ at Maths and therefore they avoid all possible interaction with the subject. Of course, when children are then raised by these parents with anxiety about Maths, this attitude can be passed on.
The biggest challenge we face as teachers in Mathematics is encouraging those children who experienced doubt or anxiety to engage fully – otherwise these children may fall further and further behind. As such it is vital for all Maths practitioners to identify what can cause anxiety in Maths and how they can support learners to either avoid this anxiety or guide them through it. And is anxiety even a bad thing?
1. Parental Influence
Children receive the strongest influence in their early development by experiences in the home. They are moulded and taught there first. Parents teach (actively and passively) behaviours and preferences to their children. This can be magnify feelings about Maths. If parents convey negative messages about Maths (or indeed any other subject), that is more likely to rub off onto the child. Of course, this is not guaranteed but it can be a factor. If a parent also experiences maths anxiety, they are likely to avoid it and therefore not support their child as much.
As teachers and schools, we can support parents and therefore children through this. We can provide experiences for parents where they can begin to understand the way that maths is taught to their children and how they can support their child in simple ways. Events such as subject workshops, Curriculum Meetings and Parents Evenings are vital moments where change can happen in the children’s home. With the support from home, children can then begin to feel supported in all areas of their life and feel less anxiety about maths.
2. Ethos of the Classroom
As a teacher, I still have a lot to learn. I am only in my third year of teaching and I recognise I still need to develop in a number of areas. Something which I feel strongly about though is developing the correct ethos in the classroom. Whilst there are times for high-stakes learning, children need to feel secure in making mistakes. If they make mistakes, these are big steps in their learning journey. For any subject, it is vital for children to feel they can take ownership of their learning without worrying about feeling they will be looked down on (by their peers or staff) for making a mistake.
I think about my ability in Art. If I were to go to an Art workshop today then I would certainly feel anxiety. A scene involving stick men is beyond me. However, I know that if i were placed in a scenario that I would not be belittled or looked down on for my ‘weakness’ then I would be more likely to have a go with the task that I was given.
3. A strict diet of problem solving
This may seem like an odd strategy for tackling anxiety – placing children in situations early on where there may be an increased likelihood of anxiety. However, if children are trained to take on problem solving challenges more, rather than comfortable pages of rote calculations, then they will develop their problem solving toolbox more for later on.
The average score in the 2016 KS2 SATs Arithmetic paper was in the mid 30’s out of 40 (around 80% score) and the average scores on the Reasoning Papers (Paper 2 and 3) were 7 and 10 out of 35 (around 20-30% score). This is telling. Children are not being exposed to enough problem solving challenges. As such, it’s hardly a surprise that children experience anxiety when faced with mathematical challenges.
It is no secret that a controlled level of anxiety in the classroom can push children out of their comfort zone and encourage greater learning steps. However, there will be a fine balance for teachers to strike which will mean children feel secure enough in their learning to take risks but also push their learning further.