Republic of Mathematics blog

Mathphobia: its existence, severity and possible remedy

Posted by: Gary Ernest Davis on: October 11, 2010

A recent Twitter #mathchat was devoted to mathematics phobia – “mathphobia” for short. The question addressed was: ” Does ‘mathphobia’ exist – how do we deal with it?”

My experiences with mathphobia

“I’m unusual I have mathphobia”

Several years ago I taught mathematical methods to elementary pre-service teachers in Washington State. These were students majoring in elementary education who were just about to begin their first classroom experiences and were enrolled in a mathematics methods class. I also taught mathematical methods to a group of older pre-service elementary teachers who were changing careers and undergoing teacher training through an 18 month Masters in Teaching program.

As is my custom in these courses, I asked students in a class to introduce themselves to each other, and to give us all some information about their backgrounds. One young woman responded, when it was her turn to tell us about herself, that she was unusual in that she was mathphobic. I used this opportunity to ask the class who else would regard themselves as mathphobic. More than half the class of about 30 students raised their hands. I then said: “Please only leave your hand raised if by mathphobic you mean shaking with fear or wanting to vomit when  you have to do mathematics”. Not one person lowered heir hand.

Think about that for a minute: over 15 young adults, preparing to go into schools and teach elementary age children, shaking with fear or wanting to vomit when they had to do mathematics. Doesn’t bode well for young children learning mathematics does it?

“I need to vomit when I think about fractions”

My colleague Robert Hunting used also to teach mathematical methods to pre-service elementary teachers in Melbourne, Australia. One semester when he prepared to discuss teaching fractions to these pre-service teachers one of the students left the room hurriedly. Upon her return she told Robert she had to go to the bathroom to be sick. Robert asked if she was alright, and she responded that she feels violently ill when she has to think about fractions.

” I had a bad experience in a mathematics class”

Again in Melbourne I filled in for a colleague on leave and took her elementary pre-service mathematics class. One young woman in the class constantly talked over me when I was trying to make a point to the class. When I brought her constant chattering to her attention she asked why I was picking on her. I explained I wasn’t and that her talking interrupted my conversation with the rest of the class. At that point her friend came to her aid and again asked me why  was I picking on this student. I repeated that she continually talked over me and over other students. The student in question was horrified and said she never did any such thing. I then indicated an older male student and said to her: “You talked all the way through his presentation last week.” She looked mortified and was even more upset when the male student nodded in agreement with me. The young woman then burst into tears, and told me she had a terrible experience once in mathematics class, and she now had a fear of mathematics. When I asked what the experience was she said she could not talk about it.

I was skeptical that her poor performance in mathematics class was radically different to her other classes until I heard her read beautifully, with excellent comprehension and clear expression. It was then clear to me and to the rest of the class that she had been traumatized and now had a morbid fear of mathematics.

“Here, catch the Stupid Rock”

At Washington State one of my professional colleagues told me about an elementary teacher he knew of who had a large papier-maché rock in his classroom labeled “STUPID ROCK”. When he asked the class a mathematics question he would throw the rock to the child who, in his judgment, gave the stupidest answer. Imagine going home after school and telling your mother, when she asked what you learned in school that day, that you are stupid at mathematics. This is nothing less than child abuse.

How bad is the fear?

Many years ago when I was at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver BC, Canada, I stepped into an elevator to descend to street level and go home. The elevator dropped as stepped into it – maybe a foot or so. My heart seemed to stop and I shook with fear of falling. All was well, however. I descended without incident. Next morning as I entered the building I went to use the elevator again but my legs would not move: I was frozen to the spot. It took my several months of working hard to overcome panic and retraining my body memory before I could get into an elevator again.

My stories about students with fear of mathematics are jut anecdotes. Yet I have hard such stories from many mathematics educators in Australia, the United States, England, and several other countries. I’ve heard them sufficiently often that I believe this morbid fear of mathematics – mathphobia – to be a very real and wide spread condition.

A couple of people made suggestions on #mathcat as to what mathphobia might be:

@suburbanlion Is #mathphobia really just a fear of #math? Or is it a symptom of a general fear of thinking for one’s self? #mathchat
@NicolRHoward #mathphobia may be a fear of not being able to use rote memorization forever #mathchat
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This, as I explain above, is not my experience. These factors may, of course, come into play. Likely a fear of mathematics is a condition with a wide spectrum of behaviors. At the extreme are the behaviors I have indicated, which amount to a morbid, debilitating  fear of mathematics, and this fear is more prevalent than is  commonly imagined.

What can we do about a morbid fear of mathematics?

First, and most obviously, we need to be alert to signs of mathematical fear or even terror. When we see those signs we need to ensure that students showing such fear need to feel safe and not threatened. We need to make engagement with simple mathematics fun and enjoyable. Essentially we need to retrain these students’ brains so that they have positive, healthy , fun times engaging with mathematics. Then slowly and carefully we need to show them the power of their mathematical minds. They need to be given room to make mistakes, to self-correct and to feel positive about that.
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They need us on their side, not adding to their already massive fears, but opening the light  and warmth that comes from an understanding of one’s own ability to tackle and solve mathematical problems through thinking.
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Teaching mathematics is, in my view, not about showing the teacher’s dazzling organization of the subject matter, or how clever the teacher is compared to the students. Rather it is about providing an atmosphere of playful engagement with mathematical problems, where students feel confident in failing, in order to try again; a place where students become transformed by exercising their own mathematical powers of reasoning.
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Postscript

Ryan R (@suburbanlion) has written a fine blog posting, discussing differences between mathphobia, mathanxiety and math avoidance. All these terms came into play in the #mathchat discsussions on mathphobia, and were more or less used interchangeably by discussants, so adding to a degree of confusion about mathphobia. Ryan clarifies this very nicely.

13 Responses to "Mathphobia: its existence, severity and possible remedy"

Thanks so much for the lovely, thoughtful post.

My favorite: “it is about providing an atmosphere of playful engagement with mathematical problems, where students feel confident in failing, in order to try again; a place where students become transformed by exercising their own mathematical powers of reasoning.”

Yes!

To that, I would add:
– positive self-talk: instead of saying “I can’t do this, I’m rubbish at maths,” encourage students to say “I can’t see the solution right now – but I’m smart, I can figure it out”
– breathing: if a student is panicking or frozen, encourage them to take a deep breath and ask them what they _can_ pick out – and be sure to thank them for whatever they muster.
– have them practise messing up. Mess up yourself and show that the world doesn’t end. Give prizes to people who catch your mistakes to draw attention to them.

Great article, nicely done :o)

Mr. Comer, my 7th grade math teacher at Forrest Grove Middle School in Worcester, was nothing short of abusive. I’d get called a dumb blond in class as he amused the boys with stories of his “whale” of a wife. Apparently she was fat, or something. I have no idea. All I know is that I went from getting As in math to suddenly being hated for my hair color and barely getting Cs.

Now I’m a math teacher, thanks in part to a math teacher in high school who didn’t care what you looked like. There are still nights even now I lie awake at night wishing I had bologna-ied his car. Does that work? Maybe slapping him in the face with an unsliced bologna log would be more fulfilling. Yes, even today, decades later.

A bad math teacher sticks with you for a long time.

I usually don’t post in Blogs but your blog forced me to, amazing work.. beautiful …

Thank you. Your supportive comments are energizing!

Hi. I am from india, and students here are generally good at maths. In my high school I was good at it but failed to pass the IIT entrance exam. It was such a disappointment for everyone around me. I graduated with biotech as my major from a local college. Now after two years of keeping an unfulfilling job I wanted to study more and suddenly I realised I have to deal with maths once again. Not only this, the common admission requirement at any masters programs here is to pass another entrance exam which has calculus, numerical analysis and algebra. Since I know I am no good at maths it is probably the last thing I want to deal with. I dont know how to deal with ghosts of past failure+terror of maths. The other thing that makes it harder for me to ask for help is that in india if you are weak in mathematics then you are treated like a blot on society, since almost everyone is an engineer here and they are good at maths.

math hater, maybe you should put your comment on a Mathematics or Science forum instead of on a weblog. In any case, could you study everything or almost everything you need on your own, without going to formal classes? Maybe find a few older books and study by yourself or with the assistance of a tutor? You may be able to learn a great deal if you study several hours a week, and if you do it every day. Could you then eventually go to school part time where you live?

Excellent article! I’ve been a community college math teacher for 27 years, and one of my primary goals is to make my class a safe environment. I’ve had students weeping in my office. And sometimes, if it’s an older woman especially, I might ask “Tell me about your father.” Because I’ve heard over an over stories like “My dad used to ‘help’ me with my homework, and if I didn’t get it right he’d hit me.” Or, almost as damaging though not as violent, “My dad used to pat me on the head and say ‘It’s OK, Sweetie, you don’t have to understand math.’ ” My parents were both math teachers, and my mom was a wonderful role model, but I think it was even more important that my dad expected and encouraged me to do well in math. His support is probably the reason I’m where I am now.

Great post. I will definitely be linking to it in an upcoming post on math phobia and the homeschooler. So many parents a 100% confident in their ability to educate their children *except for math* that it makes me cry.

A wonderful book on the subject is Math Phobia by Marilyn Burns.

Thanks again!

I agree about Marilyn Burns’ book.

Heartbreaking and true.

We all have similar stories, unfortunately; thanks for sharing yours and giving tangible tips to handle them.

I am one of th efailures at math. Perhaps it does go back to a mother who ridiculed her children for inability in math or any other subject. I actually think math is the greatest and enjoy reading about math, but remain at a fifth grade level.

I am a 40 year old school teacher with a math phobia. I avoid adding and subtracting or occasions of splitting the bill in public. I had very traumatic experiences of math classes from the first grade. Teaching techniques were based on competition and humiliation or pure boredom. I honestly hated maths, but excelled in the Arts, history, science, english and literature.
To this day, I get a panic attack if I need to use the most basic of math skills to sell raffle tickets, work at a canteen, volunteer at a stall, sell at a garage sale or op shop. I can use a register and calculator, but go “blank” when in the above situations, therefore I avoid it, hence the phobia, which leads to debilitating self-esteem issues.
I know the the only way to conquer this fear is to DO in a very safe environment. I will need therapy for this from a very experienced, knowledgeable math-phobia therapist.

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