I’m still not certain what made me so anxious about math and science. It always just felt like a core part of my being. I can name all the teachers and mentors who fostered my love of writing, reading and language arts during my school days — but I can’t name a single science or math teacher. Even trying to remember them brings up stressful and negative feelings.
Maybe it started with my parents, who always said they were “not math people,” especially my dad. He had a formative experience with a “bad” math teacher that still brings him anxiety to this day.
Doing math homework at the kitchen table was always a bit of a stressful situation. I came away from the experience feeling like I wasn’t alone in my confusion about math. But, I also believed this math stuff was crazy and my math teachers were cruel for making me do it.
You don’t often hear a lot of people saying things like, “I’m not a reading person.” But not being a “math person” gets thrown around like a badge of honor or a funny quirk. So where does our aversion to math come from exactly? Let’s dig a little deeper.
Are We Born ‘Good’ or ‘Bad’ at Math?
Let’s start with a simple premise: as humans, we all have the ability to understand numbers and do math. However, we are not all born with the same learning abilities. Scientists have found that the same DNA that influences learning to read also influences math, and subtle changes from person to person shape how we do in these subjects. This seems to be one area of breakdown for some people.
“Children differ genetically in how easy or difficult they find learning and we need to recognize and respect, these individual differences,” Robert Plomin, professor of behavioral genetics at Kings College London told The Guardian. “Finding such strong genetic influence does not mean there is nothing we can do if a child finds learning difficult. It just means it may take more effort from parents, schools and teachers to bring the child up to speed.”
Even when there is a genetic difference in learning, the school and home environments contribute about the same amount to the child’s difficulty in understanding a subject, according to The Guardian’s story.
How We Teach Math
If math anxiety isn’t coming from the home, teachers can pass it on to children at a young age. Math anxiety tends to happen more in girls than boys, and this can start with elementary teachers, who are predominantly women.
As Rhett Allain, associate professor of physics at Louisiana University, wrote in Wired to aspiring teachers, “You are going to have an enormous impact on young students. If you even think you don’t like math, these students will pick up on your dislike and also not like math.”
On top of anxiety, and the genetic studies suggesting we may not all learn math in the same way, we don’t always teach with these differences in mind.
“Most of the things that parents and kids believe about math learning is wrong,” Dr. Jo Boaler, professor of mathematics education at Stanford, told The New York Times. “In fact, maybe what everyone needs — boys and girls both — is a different kind of math teaching, with much less emphasis on timed tests, and more attention to teaching math as a visual subject, and as a place for creativity.”
I tried hard to be better at math. But I never truly opened my mind to it or had a teacher who took the interest to help me. It was just something to get through. I had, and still have, a lot of anxiety around timed tests. And, I did much better in geometry than any other math because it was more visual. Going by Boaler’s assertions, I would likely have done better in a more creative-oriented math-teaching style.
The STEM Gender Divide
It seems that the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) divide between boys and girls is not necessarily only about gender. Some of it is how we treat math and science as subjects to be revered, and people who have raw talent as brilliant. It can intimidate kids who think they aren’t “math people” and make them feel they can never master the subject.
A blog post from the website Grammarly poses, “When people isolate math from language arts or believe that literacy has no relation to STEM skills, they characterize the latter elite, unknowable and specialized. In fact, people have much more control over their mathematical ability than society would lead them to believe.”
In a study of representation in STEM fields and other parts of academia, it was found that women tend to be underrepresented “in fields whose practitioners believe that raw, innate talent is the main requirement for success because women are stereotyped as not possessing this talent.”
I loved science until it became more math/problem oriented. I never really lost my love for natural sciences, but chemistry and physics, forget it. There was a sense that the boys and high achievers in my classes were generally given more attention.
Not surprisingly, a lot of those science teachers were also men. The message that was telegraphed to me as a struggling female student — whether on purpose or not — was, “Boys, and honor roll kids like science and are good at it. Not you.”
Family Influence on Math Anxiety
In a 2017 study on math anxiety as a global phenomenon, psychologists reviewed research pointing to parents’ influence on math anxiety. They found that parents who show high math anxiety themselves can cause less growth in math over the course of the year in their kids. This is especially true when they are helping with math homework. The authors also cited research that found high math anxiety can affect the brain by impairing working memory, necessary for “short-term storage and manipulation of information.”
While parental math anxiety can extend to a kid’s negative perception of math and their abilities, it even goes beyond that.
“Parents embrace as part of their responsibility to get kids ready to read in school, to introduce them to the alphabet and letter sounds. They’re much more likely to think it’s the school’s responsibility to teach math, ” Dr. Susan Levine, chairwoman of the department of psychology at Chicago University told The New York Times.
As it turns out, it takes a village to create a math-confident kid, and that village better not be anxious. Personally, as a math-anxious mom, I will shield my daughter from my own issues with the subject. Maybe that means studying up and asking her teachers for some behind-the-scenes math help.
It definitely means I need to stop saying, “I’m just not a math person.”
Maybe now I’m on the road to realizing that really isn’t who I am after all. Hopefully, you are too.