Math anxiety – the teacher contribution?

Apparently a University of Chicago study is finding evidence that elementary school-aged girls pick up some math anxiety from their teachers. Specifically, their female teachers. (MSNBC video)

Here’s the full story, from the Chicago Tribune website.

An excerpt:

The ill effects go beyond stereotypes: girls who bought into the notion actually performed worse in math, chipping away at their self-assurance in related fields, such as science, the study found.

The effect was limited to girls — a finding that could have far-reaching implications in a country where more than 90 percent of elementary teachers are women. Researchers believe girls were affected by female teachers’ anxieties because children generally emulate the behavior and attitudes of same-gender adults.

Of course, the obvious question would be: why don’t male teachers pass on that anxiety to boys? And the obvious answer would seem to be: because the male teachers don’t typically have the same anxieties.

So, if this is true,

then it’s a feedback loop: at some point, women were supposed (and therefore expected) to lack the skills for logical thinking, including math and science. Once that cultural mindset was established, not only did it perpetuate itself with little need for reinforcement, but recent attempts to overturn it have been undermined by subconscious rejection of the new premise. To use a military analogy (which I generally don’t like, but this one seems to fit), the generals are giving orders to the front-line troops that the field commanders are unable to enforce.

The curious omission from the discussion, however, is this: what about the attitudes that the parents perpetuate in the home? We’re frequently told that parents are supposed to be part of the education equation (pardon the pun), that they play an important role in supporting a child’s efforts. So if Mrs Smith, the 2nd-grade teacher, is passing on her math anxieties to little Brittany, what about Brittany’s parents? Does her mom have math anxieties that she’s passing along? Does her dad have lower expectations of Brittany’s math skills than he does of her brother’s?

I’ve long said that one of the biggest reasons our grade-school students write off their own math skills is because, socially, it’s acceptable to do so. If I were to go to a party and say, “Oh, I’m horrible at reading,” those within earshot would treat it like the potential crisis that it is. But if I instead say, “Oh, I’m horrible at math,” I’ll get a chorus of me-toos.

The sort of mental development that comes with the understanding of concepts and perfection of skills in arithmetic, algebra, and geometry, is a large part of critical thinking. (The larger part is reading comprehension, writing, and critical analysis of written and spoken texts.) When students ask me – and they rarely actually come out and ask, but it does happen – why they should bother to learn math, my answer is always this: “The number one reason for you to learn math is because if you don’t, you will be taken advantage of by those who did.”

For instance, a person without math skills could be, oh, I don’t know, talked into buying a house they couldn’t afford by a bank that’s willing to bend the numbers a little to score some interest payments?



2 Responses to “Math anxiety – the teacher contribution?”

  1. 1 Trixie
    2010 January 28 at 3:17 pm

    I just replied to you…I re-read this a couple times. This has been such a sore point for me my entire life and that is a great response to give someone who asks that question (I did – a lot). I’d add to that by saying that one day, you might be an executive director at a non-profit and you’ll have a committee of professionals staring at you when it comes time to create the budget. 🙂

    I do though think that some people are wired not to be able to grasp those concepts.

  2. 2 Trixie
    2010 January 29 at 3:10 am

    Hey again – regarding musical instruments? Well, I was put into piano…I was ok – but it was a lot of struggle. I didn’t retain much of it. I played flute in band…sort of same story. I enjoyed reading your blog.

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