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Scaring Away Mathematical Monsters

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According to BYU professor, understanding attitudes against math, or “math identities,” may help teachers curb their student’s fear of math.


What could possibly be worse than monsters in the closet? Or even more dreaded than chores? For some students, math class can be a frightening and frustrating experience. Keith Leatham, a faculty member in the Department of Mathematics Education, is seeking to change that.

His article “Exploring Our Complex Math Identities” was recently published by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. According to Leatham, the attitudes that students have already developed toward math may be the real cause of negative mathematical experiences, and not the subject matter itself. Understanding these attitudes, or “math identities,” may help teachers curb their student’s fearful, discouraged emotions toward math.

One common misconception students bring to the classroom is the attitude that math is a robotic discipline of formulas and rules.

“If they think mathematics is all about memorization and they don’t memorize well then they don’t like math,” Leatham said of students. “[But] there are other ways to view math. I like to think of mathematics more as exploring patterns and solving problems.”

If students can realize that creative problem-solving skills are a fundamental aspect of mathematics, they may develop a new appreciation for it. Teachers can assist in this process of discovery by helping each student explore and face his or her math identity. For teachers to effectively address negative attitudes about math, they need to better understand student’s relationships with mathematics.

Opening classroom conversations in which students can discuss “what they like and don’t like about math” facilitates this understanding.

“It’s okay to talk [with students] about how [they] struggle with math,” Leatham explained. “In this way [teachers] can address things and help students develop a healthier and a more positive relationship [with math].”

Leatham suggested several activities that teachers may use to start meaningful discussions. One exercise encourages teachers to select a word such as “obedience” and then ask students to record how strongly they feel it relates to mathematics. Discussing how they rate these words can help teachers get a peek into the minds of students.

“Some think, ‘Well, mathematics is all about these rules; you’ve got to obey them. . . . That’s what I love,’” Leatham said of students’ responses to the word obedience. “But for others, this may be the very reason they hate it.”

Teachers who understand their students’ relationships with mathematics are better equipped to engage their students in the kinds of classroom activities that will build positive relationships.

“The point is to have a learning experience in class . . . making sense of the ideas,” Leatham said. “Math should really be a sense-making activity.”

By making the classroom a safe atmosphere for open discussion, teachers may help students conquer their mathematical monsters. And, who knows? This challenging discipline of numbers and formulas may just turn out to be a passionate pursuit of discovery for children who were previously paralyzed by their misconceptions.