Maybe you're dreading an upcoming math test, or maybe you're still having nightmares about an upcoming math test despite graduating 20 years ago. Either way, try not to be intimidated by the figures here: a whopping 93 percent of Americans say that they experience at least some level of math anxiety, 17 percent experience it at a high level, and over half say that it's a subject they just can't do, like magic for dweebs. That leaves, uh, a smallish(?) number of Americans who aren't stressed out by math.
Hey, that's why we write about Batman and have an intern who numbers our lists for us. But math anxiety creates practical problems among people who have to wear pants for a living, and who are being told more than ever that they should go into STEM fields if they want to succeed in life. Over half of 15- and 16-year-old students worry that math class will be difficult, and around a third are uncomfortable with math tests and homework -- they experience clammy hands, upset stomachs, lightheadedness, and other symptoms normally associated with the anticipation of physical pain.
Math anxiety also affects adults, both in educational and real-life settings, like when you're trying to calculate a tip while the barista's impatient eyes drill into your soul. This might all sound goofy if you can't relate to a dire fear of long division, but the problem keeps otherwise-competent people from considering careers with even moderate math requirements. Imagine a grim future in which there aren't enough economists to warn us about a bad market, and not enough loan sharks to "help" us survive it.
People made anxious by math aren't necessarily bad at it. But it's a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Your brain can only do so much at once, and if a healthy chunk of your head is busy processing your panic, then your memory doesn't function well. You can get so stressed out by math that in high-pressure exams, you'll literally forget how to do it. Students with high math anxiety test a full grade below their peers. Imagine geography majors so frightened at the prospect of a test that they forget how to work a globe. And if you score poorly on anxiety-inducing tests, you'll take it as proof that you suck at math, which will fill you with anxiety, and now you are caught in the spin cycle of ignorance.
That's in addition to the actual disorder that makes math difficult, because we guess this wasn't convoluted enough.
Recent studies have suggested that there's some small genetic component to all this, as some participants were intrinsically more likely to be anxious about math, spatial reasoning, navigation, and presumably life in general. But that can be overcome, and there are also huge environmental factors. Having a demanding teacher or an archnemesis who makes you solve elaborate mathematical problems to earn your freedom can kick-start the fear, but it doesn't help that the Western world's method of teaching math is deeply flawed.
Students are told that math is vital, but also that it's an inherent talent. You're either born with it or you're not, like Jedi powers. (Remember, that genetic component is small and easily defeated, like our favorite street-fighting opponents, babies.) After filling kids' heads with these fears, we then tell them they have to ace some difficult timed tests or be held back. And if they are held back, that means they're just plain bad at math. It's like telling teenagers, "You failed your first driving test, so you can't be taught to drive. You'll have to walk forever. Sorry, but this crucial skill simply isn't for you."
This also seems to be why girls struggle with math anxiety more than boys. For some reason, we still perpetuate the stereotype that manipulating numbers requires a penis, so girls aren't motivated to overcome that perceived adversity, and boys are encouraged to coast on their perceived superiority right up until they crash into a wall of calculus.
If we change how math is taught now, perhaps our children won't be doomed to a lifetime of accidentally paying triple their taxes. We present math as a series of rules you must master, lest the number goblins sense your flaws and devour you. But you don't need to rattle off multiplication tables anymore, for the same reason you no longer need to churn your own butter -- we have machines to do that for us. What you do need to be able to do is use a set of tools to solve problems. That's how math needs to be presented: as problems you play around with at your own pace.
No, seriously. Countries that emphasize the touchy-feely "Don't worry about making mistakes, just keep trying until you figure it out" approach absolutely kick America's ass at math. China, Japan, Singapore, Korea, and other countries aren't performing better at this because Asians have mystical math powers, but because they stress the idea that anyone can get better at it as long as they keep practicing. So if we want to get more people into STEM fields, the answer isn't breeding superior algebraic soldiers, but rather to stop treating numbers as if they are angry ghosts that can only be battled by gifted mathemagicians.
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