Thursday, August 31, 2006

Help Fight Math Anxiety

I was browsing an interesting post on Jennifer's Cocktail Party Physics blog the other day when I stumbled on a mini flame-war about a topic dear to my heart. The original post was about a call from for book proposals to help inspire women in science.

The flamers were arguing about whether something that is hard and potentially frustrating can be fun in the context science education, and whether it was the off-putting general difficulty of science that was the problem. I couldn't resist, so I donned my asbestos boxers and joined the fray.

Ultimately, I felt the argument was about whether people can be taught to find satisfaction in accomplishing something difficult. Here is my post, reproduced here:

One of the biggest barriers I have had to surmount across my years in academia as both science student and teacher is frustration. One of the biggest and most important frustrations has been that of failing to immediately comprehend something.

Different people respond differently to frustration. Some give up and try something else that is perhaps a little less challenging. Others, who are more comfortable remaining in that frustrating state of not-quite-understanding might persist and continue to work on their problem at hand. I am completely convinced that “Math Anxiety” is simply an inability to withstand the frustration of NOT KNOWING something long enough to actually learn it. (Note that this can be either willful or subconscious, but I have had great success in surmounting this particular claim.).

For some, the prospect of that anticipated spark of inspiration or delight that comes from persevering to the point of enlightenment drives them through the uncomfortable uncertainty period. Over time, students learn to be more comfortable and less bothered by NOT KNOWING, and can progress through harder and longer problems as their tolerance and comfort increase. Ultimately, people can learn to anticipate the challenge and revel in the idea that if they can just concentrate long enough, they are sure to eventually learn something and eventually delight in the whole process start-to-finish.

I happen to believe this is NOT an innate ability. It is a learned skill. If there is no properly self-aware teacher available to guide and settle the student through the early frustrations, and the educational environment fails to foster the mental discipline or world-view of intellectual reward through calm persistence, we end up with people who equate “hard” with suffering, who give up on ever achieving profound and potentially life-changing realizations, and who will never know the real joy of figuring out complex and interesting things.

Our schools need more teachers who understand this sort of thing.

So help fight math anxiety. Help people relax and enjoy not knowing. Help people accomplish ever-more-difficult goals.

Anyone else out there have a good story about overcoming math anxiety?


Anonymous said...

The need to tolerate confusion is also essential in understanding many works of great literature, including "Ulysses" and "Finnegan's Wake" by James Joyce. Perhaps we could foster more comfort in math classrooms by stepping up the difficulty of literary pieces taught in the liberal arts.

Anonymous said...

I neglected to mention the decreasing ability of the average high schooler (let alone junion higher) to tolerate the language in Shakespeare's works. This reputedly leads to them being left out of the curricula at many schools. It is possible that a few of your less enlightened, less educated viewers may dispute my inclusion of James Joyce's works under the heading of great literature. I cannot imagine anyone doing the same to the Great Bard.