Math phobia also affects the economy

Math phobia also affects the economy HU
One in three children suffers from math phobia, which is the most common subject anxiety. Fear of mathematics not only worsens performance and decreases self-confidence, but its negative effects can also be measured financially in the long run. We are talking to László Bernáth, full university professor at ELTE Faculty of Education and Psychology, about how this phobia evolves, how parents and teachers can handle it, and what origami has to do with it.

Many people do not like math, but when can we talk about anxiety and how does it influence performance?

If someone is not good at a subject, it does not necessarily mean suffering from anxiety. When, on the other hand, the tasks generate serious stress in the child, and he or she solves them quickly and with a lot of mistakes while being confused or restless, you should be suspicious. It is equally telling if the child hands in the test after 20 minutes, just to get out of the situation as soon as possible. This, however, leads to a vicious circle because the child starts to avoid the subject due to tension and thus acquires less knowledge and falls behind in the curriculum. All these, of course, result in more and more failures, his or her attitude further deteriorates, and it goes like this on end.
The main problem is that because anxiety takes resources away from the working memory, it worsens performance.
In other words, the child performs much poorer in a given subject compared to his or her intellectual abilities.

How many children are affected by this problem? How much do we need to be concerned about it?

Let me give you an example. According to a study from 2011, if the weakest performers in math were helped to reach a minimum level of requirement, the GDP of the United States would increase by 0.7 %. Another study found that low skills in mathematics cost £2.4 billion a year in the UK. The problem can, therefore, be expressed in money.
Another disturbing research finding shows that weaknesses in numeracy skills represent a bigger problem in people’s lives than the lack of reading skills. Those who are bad at mathematics earn less, are more often ill, have lower self-esteem, and so on. Innumeracy problems, on the other hand, are predominantly caused by anxiety.
Furthermore, the PISA 2012 assessment focusing on mathematics, explored – among other things – mathematical anxiety among 15-year-old students participating in the survey. Based on this, approximately one-third of the students were suffering from math anxiety. Other surveys had similar results among younger and older students, alike.

How does the fear of mathematics develop in someone? What role do parents have in this?

First, there may be genetic reasons underlying it. That is, some people are simply more prone to anxiety. The other two components are represented by the parents and teachers, who both serve as models for children.
If the parents themselves have a negative attitude towards math, their child will sense it immediately.
A few years ago, a study also showed that in the case of students in the junior section, the parent’s attitude had a strong effect on the children’s performance when the mother or father helped them a lot with their homework. In the case of adolescents, it has also been demonstrated that the mother’s negative attitude must be the influencing factor for the anxiety in girls and that of the dad’s in boys.

Does it mean that a parent who cannot put on a poker face had better not study with the child?

It is more fortunate if that member of the parents helps with the lesson, who does not have a negative attitude towards the subject. Otherwise, yes, they should try to hide their feelings from their children. Of course, the most ideal situation would be if the parent did not have to help the kids at all because they have been taught at school to such an extent that they can do their homework on their own.

The third factor is, therefore, the school and the teacher.

The role of the educational environment is very well illustrated by an experiment that involved housewives, who were asked to do calculations in a supermarket concerning unit prices. They answered the questions off the cuff, without any mistake. In the next round, they were given the same tasks, but in a school setting, from a math textbook. At that moment, their performance slowed down to a great extent and they made a lot of mistakes. So the school situation in itself created anxiety in them and their performance worsened immediately.
Additionally, the model effect can also be demonstrated here. If the teacher is anxious, he or she does not pay attention to the children’s questions and even becomes irritated when the students ask for help. This can be explained by the fact that the teacher is also insecure and instead of saying “I do not know, I will find it out for the next lesson,” he or she discourages the students to ask questions.

Today, in the world of the Internet, the teacher should play a supporting role instead of acting as the source of knowledge.

It is not surprising that these teachers use very traditional forms of education and consider students to be of lesser ability. No wonder that in such situations the students start getting anxious.

But why mathematics? Why is it so outstanding among all the subjects?

It is inherent in mathematics that tasks have to be solved very frequently, and teachers tend to expect the students to come up with perfect solutions, but they give very little help for this. In addition, if at the end of a long deduction – say, for a minor error – the final result is incorrect, the teacher considers only the latter and not the deduction itself. This worsens the students’ attitude right away.
In an old but still relevant survey, researchers observed more than four hundred math lessons, and very rarely did they encounter an educator who demonstrated what this knowledge would be useful in real life. Math seems too boring and alien to kids, but you cannot live without it today. You need it to prepare your tax return, track bank transfers, and so on and so forth.

How can this anxiety be prevented or eliminated?

As an eight-week special skill-developing experiment has revealed, anxiety may be reduced and performance can be improved by practicing math with playful, interesting examples taken from everyday life. If all this were done in class, there would be no need for special development.
Additionally, there are also simple tricks to reduce anxiety in kids. They should be asked to write down their negative feelings before their school-leaving examination or a test, and thus they will no longer be occupied with them while doing the test.

If we want to achieve a fundamental change, we need to act at the level of teacher training.

We should strive to train teachers, who are open, smiling, and not anxious when leaving university. They should see, for the most part, such positive models that we want them to follow.

The Cognitive and Affective Components of Effective Learning Research Group, supervised by you, also explores the relationship between the development of mathematical ability and spatial ability. What achievements have you had, so far?

We have known for a long time that there is a close correlation between spatial and mathematical skills. Already in the brain, the same areas become active when a spatial or mathematical task needs to be solved.
When talking about development, it is worth considering the kids’ toys. Traditionally, boys play with Legos and building blocks, which improve their spatial skills well, whereas girls play with dolls and draw, which do less so. So, no wonder that the fear of math emerges in girls at a younger age. Of course, stereotypes and the fact that girls are more sensitive play major roles in this, as well.
In our experiment, we offered development activities for girls in grades 5 and 6 with learning difficulties. These activities included origami, folding three-dimensional bodies, and stringing beads, which helped them understand seriality. Of course, all this was done in a playful way, so, instead of a simple tetrahedron, the kids made dogs, cats, and mice, which could be decorated, as well. At the end of the experiment, we found that after ten weeks, the children’s spatial ability improved significantly, the math tasks were solved more skilfully, and the level of anxiety decreased.

Source: ELTE PPK