Math Anxiety is a Late and Costly Diagnosis of Math Alienation

Math anxiety and math trauma are real. So much so, that depression and mental health issues can be directly linked to the pressures of learning mathematics. Sadly, there have been suicides by students linked to the fear of failure with this subject.

Identifying math anxiety, which probably ramps up in middle school, has been a topic of fixation by many educators for as long as I can remember.

There seem be dozens of articles around the title of “How to Spot Math Anxiety and Relieve It”. Every article I have read is tethered somewhat to making kids more comfortable by giving them more time to do the math. Or maybe, giving supportive resources. All given with the best of intentions so that students can be more successful.

Translation: Get Better Grades

Twenty years ago, author and math educator Paul Lockhart penned this at the beginning of his first book, “A Mathematician’s Lament: How Schools Cheat Us Out of Our Most Fascinating and Imaginative Art Form”. Yeah, a long subtitle, but one that needed to be written to convey the proper scope of mathematics.

Sadly, our present system of mathematics education is precisely this kind of nightmare. In fact, if I had to design a mechanism for the express purpose of destroying a child’s natural curiosity and love of pattern-making, I couldn’t possibly do as good a job as is currently being done — I simply wouldn’t have the imagination to come up with the kind of senseless, soul crushing ideas that constitute contemporary mathematics education. Everyone knows that something is wrong. The politicians say, “we need higher standards.” The schools say, “we need more money and equipment.” Educators say one thing, and teachers 3 say another. They are all wrong. The only people who understand what is going on are the ones most often blamed and least often heard: the students. They say, “math class is stupid and boring,” and they are right.

We rarely hear students say “math class is stupid and boring”. They are too afraid to. Embarrassed and feeling shame, they are too afraid to even talk about their math anxiety, instead using all their resources to keep that knowledge hidden, dealing with it internally. By the time that math anxiety is revealed to teachers through failed tests and maybe absenteeism in math class, much damage has already been done.

Our checking for math anxiety is not the solution. Our checking for math anxiety is the problem.

We are looking too late and math education is not taking a long, hard look into the mirror.

Alienation with mathematics is the first problem. It’s not as revealing as math anxiety, and hence, not taken as seriously. Boredom. Disenchantment. These seem like trivial responses — maybe even a required tax to learn mathematics.

The following conversation was part of a larger discussion involving disengagement with mathematics.

Who is PDT?

The way most K to 12 math curriculums have been designed in the past, alienation should have been an expected outcome — if alienation was even recognized as a problem. It wasn’t. I am not to sure if things are much better today.

If we are not capturing students with mathematics, not captivating them with its awe and wonder right from the get go, and not giving them identity with it, then alienation is the silent killer. Math education’s cardiac event, math anxiety/trauma, is what comes…later.

Slavish devotion to the things format/style/syntax — mathematical grammar — need to be supporting actors to just messing around with playful ideas of mathematics. Currently, they are the main players. If math education was a Broadway show, it should have been closed down after one performance.

Math anxiety is real. So is math alienation. We just don’t recognize it or worse, care to recognize it. In doing so, we are expending tremendous resources and energy in dealing with the symptom and not the disease.

The disease is our horribly gray illumination of mathematics with a truckload of tests and assessments waiting in the years to come.

Children don’t need fixing. Mathematics doesn’t need fixing.

We, the educators, in re-purposing mathematics, do.



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