Believe it or not, math anxiety is a scientifically proven thing.

For some people, when they see or hear about a math problem, their first instinct is to freeze up and turn away. The idea of math creates feelings of angst, and while we can never be sure why, it’s most likely because of experiences rooted within schooling that cause this.

Math seems like it would a subject with absolute answers, and to a certain degree, it’s important that we help children learn to find plausible answers that use logic; however, this does not mean that we have to teach with an absolutist mentality. When we do, it’s exactly the opposite of an empowering experience. It’s limiting, confining, and conducive to making children believe that math is a foreign language, one which they will never have any potential to understand. By approaching math through inquiry, however, we give our kids a much greater chance of relieving their anxiety around math and empowering them to be problem-solvers and critical-thinkers.

photo 1
The wall started with simply an image of the blocks. As the kids spoke, I recorded their thoughts on the wall.

Check out this series of mini-lessons I did with my students last week. I decided to switch to 15-minute shared math mini-lessons in order to help create a common experience for a group of thirteen students spanning four grade levels and various interests, one that I could easily use as the foundation for multiple proficiencies within one general skill area, but one that would still allow all students to observe, question, and think at a level commensurate with their respective skill sets.  In fact, the objective, in my opinion, has little to do with actually mastering mathematical concepts, and more to do with the art of curiosity.

We used Project Zero’s See… Think… Wonder… protocol to help the children construct meaning on their own. I started by having them simply look and tell me what they see.

“I see blocks,” one said.

“I see 10,” another replied.

“It’s getting bigger,” a third retorted.

We went through this process of seeing, thinking, and wondering. I put up all ideas, even ones that struck me as inaccurate in an effort to have something to which we could compare our thinking and learning later in the week.

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When we finished the week, we had an entire wall of thoughts and questions, accompanied by post-it notes and even some other images!

“I’m not going to tell you what I think,” I told them. “You’re going to have to figure it out for yourselves as the week goes.”

It was in this moment that a startling conclusion came hurtling into my mind–one that I always had a hunch about but could never really prove. Children don’t always need to be touching and feeling to interact; interaction itself doesn’t need to be hands-on to be valuable. Interaction implies a conversation, and whether that conversation happens with tangible media, other people, or ourselves, the bottom line is that it’s of utmost important that our children interact with what they learn and that we facilitate that interaction.  We need to facilitate this interaction so they are able to observe, question, and think in a risk-free manner.

These media–the media with which we interact on a daily basis–define our experiences and shape the knowledge that we construct. By facilitating this interaction, we facilitate learning.  We cannot facilitate learning when students are afraid to take risks, and we especially cannot foster a strong conceptual knowledge of math when anxiety presents its ugly face. Instead, the best way to face these fears is by watching them, thinking about them, and questioning them intently.

I think if this was done that way from the beginning, people would be a lot less scared of math.

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