Maths Anxiety: An Introduction
Introduction To Maths Anxiety
What kind of reaction do get when you tell people that you’re training to be a maths teacher? Hopefully you get a lot of positive encouragement, but you may also hear a lot of statements along the lines of ‘Good for you, but I was never any good at maths at school’. This might sound like light-hearted banter, but some of these statements will actually stem from a common condition called Maths Anxiety, which is thought to affect around 30% of the population in the UK.
During your career you will teach large numbers of pupils who have Maths Anxiety, and it is important to learn more about the condition and to be able to implement strategies to help address and prevent it. We don’t just have to accept Maths Anxiety - it can be tackled and there are lots of helpful tools available to teachers.
What Exactly Is Maths Anxiety?
Everyone feels a bit panicked now and again when doing a maths problem, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s Maths Anxiety.
Maths Anxiety can be defined as:
“A feeling of tension, apprehension, or fear that interferes with maths performance” (Ashcraft, 2002)
For the 30% of people who suffer from Maths Anxiety in the UK, it results in them experiencing negative attitudes and motivation towards maths. In turn this leads to avoidance, lower grades and negative self-perceptions. It isn’t a temporary feeling, it has serious long-term implications.
Despite affecting almost, a third of the UK population, Maths Anxiety has often been ignored or dismissed. The good news is that this is starting to change and that many of the strategies which help with Maths Anxiety will benefit all of your pupils in the classroom.
What Causes Maths Anxiety?
One way to think about Maths Anxiety is through the lens of trauma and adverse experience. As a survival strategy, the brain seeks to distinguish normal day to day challenges from threats to well-being or survival. These include physical and social threats, such as being left behind or humiliated or shouted at.
Previous threats are remembered, so that when the brain sub-consciously perceives a threat, it initially responds by fight or flight mode. When a learner next encounters maths they enter this mode again, and feel unable to function effectively. This leads to more feelings of shame and failure – it is a vicious cycle.
This trauma can also be triggered or exacerbated by what is experienced as TRIED maths teaching techniques:
(adapted from Nardi & Steward, 2003)
This is in contrast to ALIVE teaching methods:
(Johnston-Wilder et al, 2015)
Do All Maths Teachers Know About Maths Anxiety?
Maths Anxiety is not new, in fact it has been known about since the 1950s. In the last 20 years there has been important new research around Maths Anxiety and a whole raft of newly developed tools to help. Some teacher training programmes will include teaching on Maths Anxiety, but there are still some Maths Teachers who have not had a chance to learn about the condition. As trainee teachers you may have the opportunity to introduce some of your colleagues to the latest research around Maths Anxiety.
What Can Be Done About Maths Anxiety?
The natural response might be to just protect our learners from any challenge and to make maths comfortable for them. In the long run this is not going to help them develop and progress.
Instead what we want to encourage is Mathematical Resilience:
…“a learner’s stance towards mathematics that enables pupils to continue learning despite finding setbacks and challenges in their mathematical learning journey”
(Johnston-Wilder & Lee, 2010, p. 38).
You can find out lots more on the Mathematical Resilience website.
Growth Zone Model
An example of a tool which can be used to improve mathematical resilience is called the Growth Zone Model.
This model equips learners to:
- Accept feelings of stupidity in red zone as temporary
- Know how to get out of the red zone
- Build experience of being in and extending the orange zone
- Come out of the comfort zone.
Hand Model Of The Brain
Another useful tool is the Hand Model of the Brain.
Key message: the brain can’t panic and think effectively at the same time.
It is easily explained by watching this Maths resilience version of Dan Siegel’s model YouTube video.
Tools For Getting Out Of The Red Zone
There are lots of useful tools to help your pupils get out of the red zone. Some of them, such as going for a walk, may be most suitable if they encounter the red zone at home while doing homework, whereas others can be used in the classroom.
- Relaxation response (Benson 2000)
- Rest and digest
- 5/7 breathing
- Focus on 5 things you can hear
- Go for a walk
For more extreme cases the pupil can be sent on a mission or to a designated 'safe space'.
Links and References
More resources and links to the latest research can be found on the following links:
The Maths Anxiety Trust
A Toolkit for Teachers and Learners, Parents, Carers and Support Staff: Improving Mathematical Safeguarding and Building Resilience to Increase Effectiveness of Teaching and Learning Mathematics
How talking about maths suddenly became easier – The Toast Model from a parent’s perspective
Overcoming Statistical Helplessness and Developing Statistical Resilience in Learners: An Illustrative, Collaborative, Phenomenological Study
Addressing Mathematics Anxiety through Developing Resilience: Building on Self-Determination Theory
Addressing Mathematics Anxiety: A Case Study in a High School in Brazil
Siegel D (2011) Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation
Benson H (2000) The Relaxation Response
This article was prepared with help from with Sue Johnston-Wilder, Associate Professor of Mathematics Education at the University of Warwick. She is co-founder of the Mathematics Resilience Network.
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