A formula for beating maths anxiety

Issue: Volume 102, Number 6

Posted: 11 May 2023
Reference #: 1HA_iy

Anxiety about teaching maths is more common than you might think and can result in a self-perpetuating cycle which impacts teachers and learners alike. Three academics unpack how kaiako can instead find empowerment in the subject.

 Julie Whyte making maths learning and teaching accessible to candidate teachers in Hawke’s Bay.

Julie Whyte making maths learning and teaching accessible to candidate teachers in Hawke’s Bay.

Dr Julie Whyte, a teacher educator in the Bachelor of Teaching (Primary) programme at EIT | Te Pūkenga, recently completed her EdD thesis, Mathematics anxiety and primary school teachers: The histories, impacts, and influences through Massey University.

When writing her earlier master’s thesis on maths anxiety, Julie discovered that while there was plenty of international research about students and their feelings of anxiety around maths, little research had been done around teachers. Her doctoral research looked at the personal histories and professional lives of 12 primary teachers who self-reported as having anxiety around teaching maths.

“It’s a learned condition, so it can be unlearned. People need to have positive experiences of maths to unlearn their anxiety. So where are we ensuring that learners, and even teachers, gain a challenging, but positive experience to reduce or remove the anxiety they are feeling?”
she asks.

The research participants recalled their own learning experiences. They cited a fast pace of teaching, with little time to think or discuss, as contributing to their anxiety. They used words like humiliation, embarrassment, ridicule, pressure, sarcasm and confusion to describe their experiences.

The teachers Julie interviewed all self-reported as having maths teaching anxiety. They reported:

  • little belief in themselves teaching maths and becoming nervous before teaching the subject
  • a lack of confidence in maths and their ability to respond to students’ ideas and questions
  • difficulty in explaining maths concepts
  • feeling less mathematically able than some of their students
  • tightly controlling the class, which doesn’t encourage the development of learner agency around mathematics learning.
A candidate teacher explains her problem solving to Julie.

A candidate teacher explains her problem solving to Julie.

Impact on learning

Julie says the research participants had developed various avoidance strategies.

“Some of them intentionally scheduled maths at a particular time that they knew was likely to get shortened. They let other curriculum areas sneak in and snaffle maths time. One teacher was not teaching across the whole mathematical learning area – they focused on the strands that they felt comfortable with.”

Julie says all the teachers were very concerned about the impact they might have on their students’ learning because of their anxiety.

“When I started analysing the interviews, it stood out for me that the teachers themselves showed mathematical care for their students. They initiated self-directed professional learning. If they had difficulty with the PLD provided for them in schools, they undertook their own.

“Several of the teachers stayed teaching in the lower levels of primary school because it didn’t raise their anxiety levels and they also felt better equipped to be able to manage that level of maths teaching in a more professional and positive way. They spent huge amounts of time developing understanding of the maths that was to be taught and they wanted their teaching to be the best it could be for their learners.”

Maths and emotions

Julie believes the cycle can be broken and that supporting teachers is a good place to start.

“Cognition and thinking can’t be separated from emotions. Whatever your brain is learning or thinking about is connected strongly to emotion.

“First, teachers have to acknowledge their maths anxiety because they often keep it hidden from others – then they are more likely to seek help,” she says.

She also believes that maths anxiety is not an individual’s responsibility, saying, “It belongs to everyone – the person experiencing it, their colleagues, the schools, principals, facilitators of PLD and ITE providers. We need to be working together.”

Dr Naomi Ingram couldn’t agree more about the importance of acknowledging emotions in maths. She argues that teachers’ feelings about teaching mathematics are complex and operate on a macro and a micro level.

“They have day-to-day feelings and emotions about particular topics. For example, they might be more comfortable with geometry and not so comfortable with fractions. They might have those day-to-day emotions, but they also have overall relationships with the subject and on a macro basis they have these beliefs about how hard maths is, or how important maths is. The quality of their teaching is impacted by how comfortable and confident they are with maths and maths teaching.”

Dr Naomi Ingram with a teacher educator award.

Dr Naomi Ingram with a teacher educator award.

Addressing avoidance

Naomi, who is the associate dean of initial teacher education at the University of Otago’s College of Education, applauds Julie’s research, which she says ties in with international research showing teachers became more anxious before they start maths teaching because of their own classroom experiences.

“They’ve got this habit of engagement and non-engagement and they try and disengage when they can. Then they have this identity about ‘I am a good maths teacher’, or ‘I am a bad maths teacher’,” she says.

“It’s hard for teachers because they have had to navigate a lot of change in teaching approaches in the last 15 years. I think we acknowledge that some teachers know the maths, but they’ve been told to teach it another way and it’s very confusing and teachers want to get it right – they know how important it is. They experience terrible tension when there’s a gap between how they think they should be teaching and how they are teaching,” adds Naomi.

Otago’s College of Education looks at each student teacher’s relationships with maths, whether it’s their mathematical knowledge, their beliefs about the subject, how to teach it, the importance of engagement, or where feelings and emotions fit into it.

“Doing maths themselves is important. We have a big problem-solving assignment, and they must think about what problems they would choose to do with their students. But they’ve got to analyse the feelings and emotions they have because we’re teaching them how to use those as a signal to change strategy, not to give up. We really work on normalising confusion and emotions when doing maths,” says Naomi.

Naomi and her team believe that teacher training is where transformation can happen and the cycle can be broken.

“Mathematical knowledge is very cumulative and if you’ve got a bit missing your ‘tower’ wobbles. The other whole side of it is their pedagogical content knowledge. Part of that is being explicit about how feelings and emotions, when doing or teaching maths, impacts learning. Confusion feels negative sometimes but that’s a normal part of doing maths,” she says.

Joy of maths

Dr Pania Te Maro (ko Ngāti Pōrou te iwi, ko te whānau a Pōkai te hapū) is irrepressibly enthusiastic about the beauty and creativity of maths.

Dr Pania Te Maro.

Dr Pania Te Maro.

The kaihautū Māori for Te Kura o te Mātauranga, and associate dean Māori for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Massey University has been involved in initial teacher education, adult literacy and numeracy and teaching in kura kaupapa for decades.

When Pania noticed that teacher trainees were hiding what they didn’t know about maths, she tried to find ways to help them enjoy it.

“My initial approach with trainees is – how do you feel about it? Talk to each other, get that off our shoulders. Nobody is going to laugh or put you down and you may find the majority of people are in the same boat.

“The second one is – I’m going to make you do something really hard that you never thought you could do and I’m going to show you that you can. Then when that happens, they might try something else. Their own personal journey must go first.”

The gatekeeper

Pania’s PhD research looked at the high status of maths in western society and she says this adds to the pressure teachers may feel about the subject.

“Why does maths classify us and format our students’ identity? I watched gifted students crumple in a heap when it came to maths.

“[French philosopher Michel] Foucault uses the term ‘power/knowledge’ to signify that power is constituted through accepted forms of knowledge, scientific understanding and ‘truth’. Foucault described how accepted forms of knowledge keep people in narrow, pre-determined roles and patterns of thinking. Maths is a gatekeeper – people are sorted out according to their ability in maths.”

 Students at EIT’s Bachelor of Teaching (Primary) programme work together to explain a maths problem.

Students at EIT’s Bachelor of Teaching (Primary) programme work together to explain a maths problem.

Pania says maths has a distinct body of knowledge, which is ‘absolutely beautiful’.

“You can play with it. We do a tiny part of maths in schools. Somebody selected those parts that we do for another purpose – for skills such as budgeting, architecture, building, science; but some of it is purely for assessment. The assessment becomes a way to format the identities of our students,” she says.

Mātauranga Māori

As a kaiako in kura for 13 years, Pania only came across two ākonga Māori who couldn’t do maths. She believes those two students would now be diagnosed with dyscalculia.

“My experiences with Māori students in kura are that they can all do maths. I didn’t have any notion that anybody couldn’t do maths – I thought everybody can do it and everybody loves maths!” she laughs.

Mātauranga Māori can help in the way teaching maths is approached, she says.

“It’s whanaungatanga and it’s always knowing that people can do it. The other part is they are whole precious people whether they can do maths or not,” she says.

Pania wants people to explore possibilities with maths and gives an example of how the distribution of 120 pipi between Kaumātua at four whare can be done in a maths way, or a tikanga Māori way.

“There are a variety of answers. It could depend on how many people are in the whare. You would actually say: ‘Nan you take as many as you want’ and if there’s not enough, you’d go back and get some more, so there’s a human distribution.

“Maths distributes in another way – just as beautiful. It’s still got its own distinct world. We can deal with it – all we’ve got to do is figure out how it works. When you distribute in maths, it has to be equally distributed but then you might say, ‘If you get 30 pipis per whare, if you do it mathematically, is it still equally distributed?’

“Our tikanga for sharing is not the same as maths – we can’t make it mathematical. So, if teachers are going to use Māori contexts, they need to look at the mātauranga Māori in that context, don’t just make it a maths problem.”

The anxiety cycle can be broken when trainee teachers are supported to overcome their fears and knowledge gaps.

The anxiety cycle can be broken when trainee teachers are supported to overcome their fears and knowledge gaps.

Solving the problem

Julie, Pania and Naomi are all on the same page: acknowledge your fears about maths, find the gaps and plug them, practice and play with maths, and support each other to build knowledge and confidence.

“People who want to go back to basics are shutting the doors to all the other magical ways to see numbers. If ākonga don’t learn to see a number and pull it apart into different pieces, they’re going to struggle when it comes to higher level maths,” concludes Pania. 

Common Practice Model

The Common Practice Model (CPM) is an opportunity to reimagine the future of teaching and learning literacy, communication and maths.

Dr Pania Te Maro and Dr Naomi Ingram were both part of the contributor groups that have been developing principles and identifying pedagogical approaches that will be the basis of the model.

The contributor groups represent a broad range of experience and expertise from classroom teachers to academics, researchers, and initial teacher education (ITE) providers.

Read more in Education Gazette article, Model to address literacy, communication and maths(external link).

Dr Julie Whyte.

Dr Julie Whyte.

Building a supportive maths culture

  • Initial teacher education (ITE) should focus on maths anxiety, as well as effective pedagogy and fundamental maths content.
  • Maths anxiety is not an individual issue or responsibility but should also be owned by school personnel, PLD providers, ITE and the Ministry of Education.
  • PLD opportunities should not only involve mathematical knowledge and teaching practice but extend to the emotional aspects of teaching and learning as well.
  • In team or staff meetings, share positive and negative experiences, as well as useful and non-useful teaching practices with maths.
  • Plan as a group and share knowledge and resources.
  • Build each other’s maths and use each other as resources.
  • Role model and do maths as teachers.
  • There is a place for short courses that help to fill in the gaps.
  • Have fun – you may have a book week, do you have a maths week?

Further reading

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 11:07 am, 11 May 2023

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