Often said in jest, the phrase “I’m not a math person” can provoke more than just laughter, particularly if said around students. To Erin Maloney, it can send the message that there are some people gifted in arithmetic skills and those that will never be — and that’s the wrong note to ever send to a child.
“My colleagues and I are working to understand how the teachers’ anxiety translates into lower learning for their students, but it may be the case that teachers make comments such as, ‘it’s OK, I’m not a math person, either,’” says Maloney, by email, who also published a study about math anxiety in 2015. “While this type of comment may be made to comfort a struggling child, it might also communicate to the child that some people are ‘math people’ while others are not.”
Anxiety around math is certainly not uncommon, appearing when paying a restaurant bill or even during a classroom math lesson of the day. Maloney’s paper looked at the role this kind of math anxiety could play on “math success and STEM engagement” among students, according to her paper.
Students want teachers to be experts on the subjects they present. But if educators lack comfort with the material, they may pass that unease to their pupils. As an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Ottawa, Maloney has been studying this impact on pupils.
And it’s not something she believes can be solved by just having teachers spend more time mastering the material they have to pass along. Instead, addressing the actual anxiety may be a better course.
“Research suggests that providing courses on how to teach math to children (rather than courses focusing on the math content that needs to be taught) can really help to reduce teacher candidates’ math anxiety. And offer training on math anxiety,” says Maloney. “Given how prevalent math anxiety is in students and in teachers, it is important to offer training on what math anxiety is and what can be done to help reduce it both in oneself and in ones students.”
George Regan, a math academic support instructor at Slackwood Elementary School in Lawrenceville, NJ, believes it's crucial to find ways to back up teachers in classrooms. One way he does this is meeting with teachers regularly. Another way is to find digital tools for teachers and students alike. One such tool includes HappyNumbers, which Regan introduced to his K-3 School and saw math confidence in students rise, as well as in new teachers.
HappyNumbers highlights, in the moment, concepts children are having trouble with as they work through problems. Teachers can then pull these up to see what to focus on when they’re working with their students. Core topics ranging from subtraction to word problems are broken into small steps, and Regan’s a particular fan of the tool’s visual elements, saying they help to make math more accessible to younger students.
Paths to confidence
Classroom math instruction used to be based primarily on a textbook, says Regan. If teachers didn’t understand a concept, there were few options to draw from to help them get more familiar with the subject — and their students. Today, there are a number of tools teachers can draw from to teach the subject, which helps them also develop more comfort with the material.
“It’s a vital component, feeling competent and experienced with the subject matter,” Regan says. “The first year, it doesn’t happen. But professional development and products can help them progress and feel more comfortable.”
Maloney agrees, adding that it’s also important to tell students that they can get better at anything they work with — including, of course, math.
“It is OK for students to struggle with math so long as they are learning from their mistakes and they realize that struggling is part of the learning process,” she says.