Reflections on #mathchat: Mathphobia

Today's #mathchat was a repeat of last Thursday's discussion on “Mathphobia”. One of my questions in Thursday's chat prompted a very insightful commentary from Gary Davis, a.k.a. @RepublicOfMath. With this new evidence in mind, I tried to observe today's #mathchat with a fresh perspective. I couldn't quite condense my thoughts into 140 characters, so I'm taking this opportunity to summarize what I learned from the experience.

First, I think its important to clarify what is meant by “mathphobia”. For the sake of clarity, I'll use the term “mathphobia” in the same sense as @RepublicOfMath's article. Mathphobia is a condition where an individual is terrified of mathematics to the point of feeling physically sick at the thought of math. I'll use the term “math anxiety” to refer to a lesser version of this condition, where an individual experience a fear of math that interferes with mathematical performance but is not as completely disabling as mathphobia. In general, moderate symptoms of math anxiety are highly prevalent in society. As @ColinTGraham noted, research studies have shown that simply telling adults that they're going to take a math test will cause their blood pressure to rise! I realize that this distinction between “math anxiety” and “mathphobia” is somewhat fuzzy, but for the sake of argument these labels will suffice for now.

Reviewing Thursday's #mathchat archive, I think you can see two different conversation lines taking place. One conversation about mathphobia and another about math anxiety.

With regards to @RepublicOfMath's proposal that mathphobia is the result of abusive teachers, this makes a lot of sense from the standpoint of classical conditioning. If a student repeatedly has painful experiences with mathematics instruction, then the student will gradually learn to associate the two. As a consequence, experiencing any subsequent mathematical instruction will automatically trigger a painful response.

With math anxiety, there are similar mechanisms at work. For example, the rise in blood pressure in preparation for a math test can be interpreted as a conditioned response to the need for an increase in cognitive processing. The high prevalence of math anxiety symptoms suggests that math anxiety can develop with or without “abusive teachers”. I think that a variety of the “mathphobia causes” discussed in Thursday's #mathchat may contribute to math anxiety in some form or another, but may not be a cause of the more extreme mathphobia as described above.

With today's #mathchat, I saw something a little bit different happen. The conversation took a turn towards “math avoidance” – the lack of participation in mathematical activities. Here I think we see the crux of the problem. When a student develops math anxiety or mathphobia, that student begins a behavioral pattern of math avoidance. This behavior is self-reinforcing because it allows the student to avoid the painful stimuli associated with math. In order to undo the association that underlies the math anxiety or mathphobia the student needs to be presented with stimulus-response situations that are positive, but when the student avoids math altogether this becomes a difficult task.

The other complication that math avoidance presents is that it becomes difficult to distinguish between students who suffer from math anxiety or mathphobia, and those who are avoiding it for other reasons. Those reasons might be a lack of perceived relevance, a negative social image of math, or a lack of self-confidence. Many of these issues were identified in Thursday's #mathchat, but the focus of today's chat really tied them all together for me.

In conclusion, I think we need to address math anxiety and mathphobia from two directions. First, the classroom needs to be a safe environment where students are free to make mistakes and learn from them rather than being punished for them. Secondly, the behavior of math avoidance needs to be addressed. In order to facilitate the extinction of the conditioned stimulus-response to math, students need to be exposed to math in a positive environment. At first glance, it may seem like this is “treating the symptom rather than the cause”. However, if teachers do not provide temporary relief for the symptom of math avoidance, it won't be possible to “treat the cause” of math anxiety or mathphobia.

Some questions for further discussion:

  • Where does one draw the line between "math anxiety" and "mathphobia"?
  • How can educators address "math avoidance" behaviors?
  • What are the best practices for creating and maintaining an empathetic and non-threatening mathematics classroom?

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