Imagine this: You’re in a foreign country and you walk around listening to the locals talk to one another in their native tongue. They all act like it’s easy and like they actually enjoy it! You just stand there….dumbfounded….. overwhelmed…. and lost.
Then they try to talk to you! They want you to engage with this language too? Oh no, not going to happen. You get that “deer in the headlights” look, you start to sweat, and you feel so embarrassed and uncomfortable because you can’t understand what you’re hearing.
Unfortunately, a scenario similar to this one is an all too familiar reality for some learners. This is how some feel when they look at a sheet of paper with a math problem on it or when they are sitting in the classroom and their teacher is going on about everything from addition to the z-intercept.
For many learners, all those numbers and letters being thrown around together can look like as much of a foreign language as French or Italian! Furthermore, a significant contributor to the slowing down of children’s learning can be attributed to anxiety.
In a recent study conducted by the Stanford University School of Medicine, brain scans of children with high levels of math anxiety “showed activation in the brain’s fear circuits and so-called “fear center”, or amygdala”, while solving math problems. This same study however, found that through effective math tutoring, in which students are repeatedly exposed in a safe environment to the thing they fear, this math anxiety can be ameliorated.
These findings provide valuable insight into how math tutoring and instruction can do more than provide coping skills for learners with math anxiety. Proper instruction can actually deactivate the fear circuits and activity in the amygdala, making children feel more capable and confident when attempting to speak this foreign language we call math.
Therefore, it is important that when beginning to navigate this new language, to have a reliable teacher and translator, one well traversed in the art of the language, one who has been walking the walk and talking the talk for years. Enter Dr. Anita Long.
Dr. Long, who has worked as a math professor, instructor, and coordinator in schools throughout the State of Vermont for more than 25 years, is bilingual. Here she demonstrates her fluency in the understanding and teaching of math by providing us with her top 8 tips when helping learners actively and positively learn “Mathenese”.
1. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE: Languages, in the traditional sense, consist of words that are made up of letters. Math is no different. Math problems are made up of numbers and symbols that also need to be deciphered and understood. It is helpful to explain to students that just like they must practice scales when playing an instrument or practice how to dribble a ball in soccer, they also much practice math. No one is perfect when they first start!
2. ACT EARLY: Expose learners to math early and often because the more exposure they get, the less foreign it will be. It is vital to talk to children about numbers, shapes, and concept words such as bigger, smaller, less than, equal too, etc. There is a specific math vocabulary to build up! If they are used to hearing it they will become more comfortable with math and less likely to associate it with anxiety.
3. TALK POSITIVELY!: Avoid using discouraging or math disparaging language. There are huge negative psychological impacts for children and their attitude towards math when they hear their parents or other role models say things like, “I can’t help you because I am bad at math too” or “I have always hated math!” On the other hand you should also avoid saying things like, “Oh come on, you can do this. It’s not that hard.” Comments like that can cause children to feel ashamed or afraid of math.
4. UNDERSTAND THEIR PACE: Be aware that every learner has their own pace at which they understand math. Some individuals are able to easily perform mental math while others need extra time to construct a thought process that makes sense to them. Rushing a learner into an answer will only cause heightened anxiety.
5. ENCOURAGE THEM: Consistently encourage them to take chances. Prompt them to come up with solutions on their own without fear of failure. Ask questions like, “Well what do you think?” or, “Let’s look at that together.” Making them feel comfortable trying will give them the confidence to take on challenges and overcome their math anxiety.
6. MAKE IT FUN: There are plenty of great ways to incorporate math into your everyday routine and make it a game! Examples include:
A. When you’re in the car play a more math focused version of iSpy! You can say things like, “I spy something that is a triangle!” or use songs to expose a learner to math lingo.
B. Use music to expose children to math. “The Wheels on the Bus” is a great example of a math friendly song!
C. Regular games can be used as opportunities to teach math skills, such as games that involve the use of dice or a deck of cards. Board games are an opportunity to prompt learners by saying things like, “Daddy is ahead of you on the board, how many spaces would you need to go to catch up with him?”
7. MAKE IT APPLICABLE: Many children in school at one point or another may think, “Well why do I have to learn this, it is not like I will ever use this in real life.” That is why it is important to show learners all the ways in which math is very applicable in their life. Take advantage of everyday situations that show them math’s usefulness. For example, make a game out of guessing how much change you will get back when you buy something at the store, figure out how many miles to the gallon your car gets the next time your learner is with you when you fill up the tank, or prompt them with questions regarding time, such as, “Grandma is coming for dinner at 6 p.m. and it is 1 p.m. now. How many hours till Grandma gets here?”
8. CATER TO THEIR LEARNING STRENGTHS: Every learner is different and not all learners should be taught math in the same exact “cookie cutter” way. If they are a visual learner, have them draw a picture they see in their mind when addressing a certain math problem. If they are a learner who prefers words, contextualize the math problem by creating a story and use words to describe the sequence of numerical events.