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Five Ways To Shift Teaching Practice So Students Feel Less Math Anxious

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Students at the YouCubed Summer Camp work together to make geometric shapes out of string. (YouCubed)

Math has been a traditionally thorny subject in many American schools. Lots of children dislike math and many more adults stopped taking mathematics as soon as they are able, even when they were successful in their classes. At the same time, mathematical thinking is a crucial part of many of the most exciting and growing careers in science, technology, engineering and math, not to mention important for a general understanding of the mathematical world around us. So, what can U.S. math educators do to shift this dynamic?

Stanford Mathematics Education Professor Jo Boaler is championing a dramatic shift in how many math teachers approach instruction. Rather than focusing on the algorithms and procedures that make mathematics feel like a lock-step process -- with one right way of solving problems -- Boaler encourages teachers to embrace the visual aspects of math. She encourages teachers to ask students to grapple with open-ended problems, to share ideas and to see math as a creative endeavor. She works with students every summer and says that when students are in a math environment that doesn't focus on performance, speed, procedures, and right and wrong answers they thrive. They even begin to change their perceptions of whether they can or can't do math.

Solving The Math Problem (Subtitles) from YouCubed on Vimeo.

In an opinion piece for The Hechinger Report, Boaler lays out five ways teachers can approach instruction differently. She points out that many students experience math anxiety, which is negatively related to performance. While psychology research has pointed to smaller interventions to lower anxiety before tests or to help students combat stereotype threat, Boaler says those measures fall short. She writes:

Widespread, prevalent among women and hugely damaging, math anxiety is prompted in the early years when timed tests are given in classrooms and it snowballs from there. Psychologists’ recommendations — including counseling and words to repeat before a test — severely miss the mark. The only way to turn our nation around is to change the way we teach and view math. The problems that we have now include these:

First, math is often taught as a performance subject. Ask your children what their role is in math class, and they are very likely to say it is to get questions correct. They do not say this about other subjects. More than any other subject math is about tests, grades, homework and competitions.

Check out Boaler's recommendations to change the math teaching paradigm in the U.S.


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