Busting math myths to create math-positive attitudes

Help children overcome math anxieties by busting a few myths

Go to the profile of Judy Willis
Oct 04, 2017
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“I hate math”

In an AP poll, over 1/3 of adults polled about school year math experiences indicated that they “hated” math in school. In fact, math was twice as despised as any other subject. Even if math was not your bane, it is likely you’ve heard a complaint or two about math from your children, possibly including “I hate math,” “Math is my worst subject,” “Math is too hard and I’ll never use it,” or “It’s boring.”

Brain scans and other neurocognitive research correlate increased math stress levels with decreased memory efficiency and ultimately a progressive drop in motivated effort. Math negativity is a stressor you can help your children replace with the pleasure, self-efficacy, motivation, and perseverance of math positivity.

Math negativity often starts young, and unchecked, it builds up. Math stress and low self-expectations can come from math stereotype beliefs, parental math negativity, frequent failure to understand math concepts, or fear of making mistakes. Many early math learning is rote memorization and children become discouraged when they mistakenly believe that speed and one right answer measure math intelligence and potential.

Joy and enthusiasm are absolutely essential for learning to happen – literally, scientifically, as a matter of fact and research. Attentive focus and sustained effort are limited brain commodities. In the stress state, feelings of anxiety, confusion, and mistake fear, leave less mental effort available for cognition and taking on challenges.

Consequences of math negativity may include low participation, low challenge tolerance, falling further behind, behavior problems, and avoiding the advanced math classes needed for success in many careers after high school and college.

Bust their math myths and stereotypes

Math myths abound and can adversely affect learners. However, you can help your children build the positive attitudes needed to sustain their effort through challenge, setbacks, and mistakes. To start with, try busting any mistaken math stereotypes or myths about math abilities they may hold.

Myth 1: You either have or don’t have a math brain

Many children believe that if their parents did not do well in math, their genetic makeup will limit their own potential. A frequent comment from my students was that their parents told them, “I’ve always been bad in math” which they interpreted as meaning they inherited math hopelessness.

On the other hand, equally challenging for children is the belief that because parents told them that they found math “easy” that means that their struggles indicate their lack of a “math brain.”

Parent frustrations increase math stress. When parents say things like, “I did quite well without math and so will you” or “I don’t know why you are having problems, I had no trouble adding fractions with different denominators – it is quite easy”, children start doubting themselves. When children perceive parent frustration, they may take on the incorrect belief that they are letting their parents down if they struggle or ask for help, even when it is quite appropriate to do so. The outcome can be falling further behind, not because they are lazy or have inadequate brainpower, but because they lose confidence that their efforts will make any difference.

Don’t emphasize your own math experiences as being very easy or very hard. This will help children focus on their own potential, rather than being swayed by your experiences and preconceptions.

There is no such thing as a “math brain.” Children need to know that regardless of your or their past math experiences, all brains have the potential for math success. Help them understand that effort and practice, even struggles, strengthen brainpower. They were born with and will always have the potential to achieve success in math and, with perseverance, they will get better and better.

Myth 2: “Boys are better at math than girls”

Dr. Torkel Klingberg, researcher and professor of cognitive neuroscience at the Karolinska Institutet, reported that when subjects were told that the experimental math test they would be taking would be used to evaluate the influence of math stereotypes, girls and boys scored equally. When the same test was described as an evaluation of “complex math skills” girls were scored lower than their male counterparts.

This is an example of the power of girls believing in the untrue stereotype that boys have more natural brainpower in math. Your discussions with daughters about this myth will go far in increasing their math confidence and outcomes.

Myth 3: “Math isn’t important for everyone”

“Math is not that important in most careers,” “It’s okay to be bad at math because most people are,” or “Math isn’t really used much outside of special occupations” are comments that lead children to give up more quickly, especially if math is a struggle without hope they can succeed.

Find opportunities to show children how math is used in many occupations as well as how you use math throughout your day at work, home, and on the go.



** This is part 1 of a 2-part series on changing how kids thinking about math. In my next post, I'll cover a few more ways you can help children move from math-negative to math-positive attitudes **

 

Go to the profile of Judy Willis

Judy Willis

M.D. Physician, M.Ed. Master of Education, Neuroeducator, University of California, Santa Barbara

Dr. Judy Willis combined her 15 years as a board-certified practicing neurologist with ten subsequent years as a classroom teacher to become a leading authority in the neuroscience of learning. Dr. Willis has written seven books and more than 50 articles for professional journals applying neuroscience research to successful teaching strategies. She is on the adjunct faculty of the University of California Graduate School of Education, Santa Barbara. Dr. Willis travels nationally and internationally giving presentations, workshops, and consulting while continuing to write books and staff expert blogs for NBC News Education Nation, Edutopia, Psychology Today, and The Guardian. In 2011 she was selected by Edutopia as a “Big Thinker on Education.”

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