The Maths Anxiety Kid

Anxiety, by definition, is an irrational fear of something. Now I’ve heard the term ‘maths anxiety’ bandied about and know that according to empirical research this phenomenon exists – though for some reason you never hear about ‘English anxiety’ or ‘geography anxiety’*.

Whatever the reason for its existence, this week the maths anxiety of some of my students smacked me in the face.

Here’s the situation: mid-year exam coming up, students are given summary sheet templates to organise their notes and have some class time to do so. In theory, a perfect opportunity to revise a semester’s worth of work, practice questions and put together notes that can provide guidance during the exam.

For the Maths Anxiety Kid, instead this means leaving all books closed and pens out of sight, before finally writing a couple of words in their book, shortly followed by tearing out the page. The Maths Anxiety Kid will also engage in an interplay of offering to hand out sheets, clean the board, becoming argumentative about starting their work and endlessly wandering around the room.

On catching up with the Maths Anxiety Kid at a subsequent lunch or recess, he/she will have little to no recollection of the content of the lesson. Every persuasive technique picked up in English class will be tried on me to avoid revisiting the learning that was supposed to happen and putting pen to paper as we talk through a problem.

The Maths Anxiety Kid is a serial avoider, who lacks persistence and drive. In short, they hold a fixed mindset, perceiving their abilities in maths to be innate.

As teachers or parents or friends, our job is to help them turn this mindset around. Any display of effort and understanding should be celebrated and opportunities to use maths in a fun way, for example with games and puzzles, should be seized.

* Possible exception is ‘science anxiety’. I’m sure I had a mild form of it in high school.

Reliability and perfection

I

reliability, n. the extent to which an experiment, test, or measuring procedure yields the same results on repeated trials.

perfection, n. the action or process of improving something until it is faultless.

II

“There’s a paradox here. Ask most research physicians how a profession can advance, and they will talk about the model of ‘evidence-based medicine’. …[I]n a 1978 ranking of medical specialities according to their use of hard evidence from randomised clinical trials, obstetrics came in last. Yet almost nothing else in medicine has saved lives on the scale that obstetrics has.”

– from The Score: How childbirth went industrial.

III

I have found myself in a state of slowly trying to procure the most perfect lesson. To fix things up so that it runs minute-by-minute according to a plan, in which I am asking just the right questions, have tasks that are carefully scaffolded at the precise level for each of my students, with every stage of the lesson considered and noted down. The problem with this is that the complexity of the details that I’ve built up in my mind across the 75 minutes of a lesson don’t play out as planned. This, of course, is because I’m dealing with actual people – and young, inquisitive, social teenagers at that.

Instead of needing perfectly tailored lessons they need reliability.

IV

The Apgar Score is a measurement tool that is used in obstetrics. It is a very, very simple tool to administer, consisting of five questions worth two points each. As a result of having this standardised measure used for diagnostic purposes and for comparing the health of newborns, this tool has saved the lives of many babies and their mothers who would otherwise have been at risk of death. And part of the beauty of this tool is that it concentrates on the notion of overall reliability as opposed to the perfect measurement of many characteristics for each and every child.

For an individual doctor, it may seem more useful to work with a detailed tool that goes into the particulars of the baby they are delivering. But consider this one child in the context of all of the babies that are born and how the doctor can learn from the vast numbers of babies and apply that learning to the one individual baby.

If you can gather data on a general population, then as a consequence you will be able to have greater insight into what goes on within that population, including broader patterns or trends, in contrast to the perspective that would be gained by looking at a smaller case study in a greater amount of detail.

V

Given the simplicity of the Apgar score, it can be delivered by anyone, no matter the level of expertise and no matter the location. The same sort of thinking needs to be applied in schools.

In the complex environment of a school, we are consistently guilty of trying to find the most perfect way of measuring where a student is at or planning a lesson or analysing the performance and progress of a teacher year by year. Now, don’t get me wrong, all of this is important and I don’t deny the utility in understanding each of these insights. However, if we are to better consider the progress of a student and the progress of a number of students overall, then we need to be looking at them as a conglomerate. We need to be thinking, what is a more reliable way in which we can assess improvement and be able to do this in an efficient way?

A Lesson on Failure

One of the first messages that came through to me loud and clear when I began my teaching studies is that failure is okay.  This is an important message that applies just as strongly for teachers as it does for students.

Just as you need hatred in order to understand love, you need failure in order to understand success.  I believe in these polar opposites as being integral tools for gaining perspective and insight into your own learning.  By making mistakes, you can plan, form goals and reflect upon mistakes made so that you may improve for next time.

In my classroom, I have been told, don’t worry about making mistakes or about having terrible classes – they will happen.  This is not to say that you should move on past a terrible class and forget that it happened, but use it as a learning exercise.  Even talk to the students about why that lesson did not go well and why you each believe that was the case.

Last week I gave one of my top-performing classes a test – however, the moment I handed it out, I realised it was testing them in the wrong way.  Instead of providing a set of questions that asked for a clear demonstration of skills, the test included challenging questions within too short a time frame.  In theory, most students would have been capable of solving all the questions, but given the allocated time, speed was prioritised over ability.  I have decided that since I would like students’ score to be a true reflection of their ability, I will talk to them about whether they would like to spend some more class time to complete the test.

While the structure of the test has reflected a failure on my own behalf, I must be careful to communicate to students that their own mistakes in the test do not indicate a catastrophe.  A student may fail the test, but they are not failures.  The distinction between being a failure and failing – a term that I do actually avoid using in case of confusion – is crucial. Much in our society is ridden on success, and constant progress.  If our students are only fed this mantra then it is all the more difficult to take imperfections in their stride and appreciate that failure is a natural part of life.

What I am trying to encourage students, and to display through my own practices, is that much can be learned through the habit of risk-taking. Risk-taking allows the individual to be autonomous in their learning, whilst also confronting challenge and potential fall-backs.  A thought to contemplate some more later: is risk something we are losing in our education?