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Maths anxiety just doesn’t add upSaturday 10 December 2005
Summary How many times have you heard someone say, 'I'm no
good at maths'. Debbie Richards believes being bad at maths has
become a badge of honour and she thinks it's time to do something
about it. She attributes this common refrain to a phenomenon called
'maths anxiety' and suggests some corrective strategies.
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Program TranscriptMaths. Does
mention of the word make you want to run the other way or raise the
hairs on the back of your neck? It does for many. Or do you belong
to the other camp who’ve learnt that the best strategy at parties is
to say 'Oh, I was never any good at maths'. Being bad at maths has
become a badge of honour in our society. But is this healthy?
Shouldn’t we be doing something about the phenomenon known as maths
anxiety?
How do you know if you’re a sufferer? Well if you go
out of your way to avoid anything to do with calculations or solving
problems with numbers in them, then you have maths anxiety. We all
had subjects at school that we disliked. But the fear of maths is
stronger, more widespread and more persistent, often lasting a
lifetime. Many hide behind the catch phrase, 'I don’t need maths to
survive'. But do people make the same statements about history,
languages, chemistry or music? Parents will often assist with
homework even in areas they’ve never learnt before. Not so with
maths. Matureage students can be found in almost any degree at
university, but this is highly unlikely in maths degrees. It seems
that when you become separated from maths, which typically starts in
upper primary school, the relationship is likely to end in
irretrievable breakdown and divorce.
The good news is, you’re
not alone. Fear of maths is widespread. Google returns over 140,000
hits for "maths anxiety". The pervasiveness of the problem might
encourage you to believe that there is really something to fear and
that your fears are justified. However, separate research conducted
by psychologists in the UK and the US has found that the anxiety
generated by thinking about maths competed with working memory
resources. As a result, maths anxiety affected not only doing sums,
but also literacy related tasks, like reading and comprehension.
Fear of maths becomes a selffulfilling prophecy. According to
recent studies from the renowned USbased Mayo clinic, only around
6%14% of students have a true maths learning disorder. What excuse
do the rest of us have? Far more students have reading disorders,
but is it cool to be unable to read?
Most of us console
ourselves with blaming a teacher who didn’t know or like the
subject, or who was unable to teach it. Maybe you came from overseas
and had been taught a different way. Maybe the regular tests made it
all too competitive. Maybe you just didn’t get it! Perhaps you found
those in the know, to be too arrogant to take the time to explain
the context and background.
It is sums that people are
afraid of, say British psychologists at their annual conference this
year, but they believe the focus should be on problemsolving where
maths becomes a game. In support, a New Zealand study found students
from Asian backgrounds saw maths as intrinsically interesting and
worth pursuing due to the challenge and sense of achievement of
solving problems. In the same study, nonAsian students moved the
responsibility to their teachers to make maths fun and relevant.
So does it matter if we can’t do maths? Well we all need the
basics to catch the train, do the weekly shopping, balance our
budgets and work out whether our stocks are up or down. People in
many professions and businesses need more than basic maths. Dr Bob
Anderssen, from CSIRO’s Maths Division in Canberra, says that maths
pervades all of society and is part of our decisionmaking, ranging
from determining grain hardness for making flour, to tuning pianos.
But the important issue isn’t whether trigonometry, algebra or
quadratic equations are useful, we could have that same debate for
the plays of Shakespeare and the fall of the Roman Empire. The
question is why do we love to hate maths? And should we allow
negative attitudes to be reinforced and unchallenged? Is it time for
affirmative action for maths? I say yes.
Maths has become a
divider in our society. In the past it was gender and classbased
segregation. However, recent international reports show that
students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds still have a distinct
advantage in maths. A key success factor in Australia is families
that encourage a more positive attitude to both maths, and the study
required to succeed.
Maths is hard. Did I forget to say
that? But what happened to the idea that challenges are
characterbuilding? With increasing affluence in the Western world
such thoughts sound trite. We want to be managers that tell others,
including mathematicians, to solve the problems. But in a culture
that equates maths with geeks, we might have to go back to flipping
a coin, or start outsourcing our decisionmaking to places like
China where mathematics is held in high regard.
How can we
change attitudes? What about a public campaign like 'Maths – Be in
It! Exercise your brain!' What about the suggestion by Prof Garth
Gaudry in a recent report on teacher education to the House of
Representatives that recommended all primary school teachers, as a
bare minimum, have a good pass in general maths at year 12 level and
that at university they learn not only how to teach, but also what
to teach and why. Do they need that much maths? Well Gaudry says it
will give them better and deeper underlying knowledge for the basics
they need to teach. I think the key benefit is that it raises the
bar on who will be able to lay the learning foundations for future
generations, and ensures that those who do are mathsfriendly. If
primary school teachers try to avoid maths or think its further
study a waste of time, then how will their pupils believe otherwise?
Perhaps universities should not bow to pressure to dumb down their
courses and reduce their maths requirements.
Hating maths is
not clever. We hurt ourselves, our children, our country. Let’s stop
maths bashing. Coaching schools, community colleges and TAFEs have
seen many overcome their fear. Like the happy customers of
weightloss programs, the overcomers have gained confidence and are
getting on with life instead of hiding behind a size 20 kaftan, with
'I failed maths' printed on it.
Guests on this program:
Debbie Richards Radio National
Science Media Fellow 2005 Associate Professor and
Director,Industry and External Relations Department of
Computing Macquarie University http://www.comp.mq.edu.au/~richards/
Presenter: Robyn Williams
Producer: Polly Rickard and David Fisher 



