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Nothing to fear about Mathematics

Nothing to fear about Mathematics
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By: Vijay Garg

Many people enjoy maths at school and out of school as well. Some of us will probably use mathematical language comfortably. Many parents will teach children to understand basic concepts such as counting numbers and simple fractions at a young age. Many children do enjoy Maths like anything. And some have problems when Maths graduates to complex fractions. But unfortunately, a large section of the population found school maths so confusing and so distressing, that they avoid anything remotely mathematical.

Though fear of maths can affect anyone, a certain research found that especially women and people of colour tend to drop out of maths or even opt out of careers that would involve having to do a minimum of maths, such as the mandatory maths or stats courses in science, medicine, commerce and even social sciences. Mathematics is more often widely recognized as a problem area. In many parts of India, maximum failures at matriculation are in mathematics. And mathematics is compulsory for matriculation. As a consequence, every child who enters the educational system has to study it till the matriculation level.

What is Mathematics?

Simply put, Mathematics is a discipline which deals with the logic of quantity and shape and arrangement. Moreover, it is the underlying structure of the world, which we see in patterns, shapes, quantities and intelligent guesses. Maths when presented in the classroom or in a textbook, is often a formal, precise, and disciplined step by step progression to a logical conclusion. But according to Experts, these are completely artificial, complex methods compounded to give students practice in applying the algebraic code. The reason they are artificial is the difficulty in finding actual problems in everyday living that require algebra.

Why is Mathematics Needed?

We need to understand the concepts of numbers and quantities because we require it for our daily routines. Our lives are governed by Time and to understand Time we need Maths. Maths is all around us. We see patterns in art and music. Businesses need to make intelligent guesses or estimates of how much something is going to cost, how many people need their products, how fast it is going to sell. We need to keep track of our bank accounts and ensure we do not spend more than our income. Our activities like baking cakes, decorating a room etc. are based on the Quantity and Time required which again requires maths.

What are the Causes of Fear of Maths?

Inherited Trait: In an observation, students assimilated more complex concepts and skills that they used in daily life and they simultaneously failed to assimilate relatively simple concepts which they encountered in formal mathematics. It was clear that this is concerned with the absence of opportunities to learn formal mathematics in a natural way at home of the child. In fact, the interactions within the family and members tend to prepare a child to dislike mathematics as either one or both or some family member itself hated maths. This trait gets picked up by the child even though he may be good at maths.

Community Influence: Most of us look at mathematics as a subject which is too formal, it is required for calculations or for taking higher courses. This negative repute makes the subject appear dry and utilitarian for children. We do talk of neighbours and other relationships between individuals but do not describe number work as finding relationships between numbers. Social interactions in society tend to prepare the child to dislike mathematics through assigning, time and again, a variety of negative adjectives like dry, difficult, boring, etc. to describe mathematics in general.

Low Self Esteem: A student’s brain makes a high-speed microsecond evaluation of the word problem and declares it as “nonsense.” It does not make sense. Then the brain makes a secondary evaluation – The Teacher and the other students are comfortable. They seem convinced that the problem is relevant and worthwhile. It must be something wrong with me. I don’t understand. I guess I’m no good at maths. Another myth causing this low self-esteem is the math gene – some have and others do not. Hence, only geniuses are capable of creating or understanding formulas and equations

Lack of Analogies: Analogies play to the right brain and are exciting because they enable understanding in the very first exposure of any concept in any field. For example is this question – How long have dinosaurs been on earth? The left brain answer is 100 million years. The student can memorize the answer and get a perfect score on a test with absolutely no understanding. To actually communicate to students how long dinosaurs have been on earth, we use this analogy that plays to the right brain: If the age of One – Day & Night is 24 hours, dinosaurs were here for one or two hours and we have been on earth one or two minutes. If an abstraction can be converted into an analogy, any student can “catch the instructional ball when the instructor pitches it.” Most students can get it in the first exposure without memorization and without stress. In mathematics, analogies are rare in print and even more rare in the classroom.

The absence of analogies means that students are confined to using half the brain, and usually, it is the wrong half. By imprisoning students in their left brain, we mystify them with one abstraction after another. Since there is almost no brain switching from one side of the brain to the other, the result is Negative brain instruction. All of this produces an understandable avoidance reaction to math.

Fictitious Fear: The Image students have of mathematics and mathematicians is most certainly fictitious. Math textbooks and classes represent a “homogenized” view of mathematics that in no way showcases the exciting stories of how discoveries are made. The stories are the romance of mathematics which should come first to inspire students so they are ready and eager to continue exploring the mysteries of mathematics. Students watching mathematicians perform in the classroom come away with the illusion that mathematicians are precise, formal, and accurate dispensers of absolute truth. The reality is that professional mathematicians are imprecise, indefinite game players who draw with numbers and relish exploring options.

Learning Disorder:  Dyscalculia is a learning disorder that afflicts about 6 per cent of the population. Those afflicted with it have difficulty visualizing number sequences and even the passage of time. A part of the brain called the intraparietal Siculus, or IPS, is known to be important for number processing. The IPS is important for determining how many things are perceived, as opposed to how much of something there is. For such people, distinguishing between the bigger of two numbers can be difficult. Dyscalculics can learn to count, but where most people can immediately tell that nine is bigger than seven, anyone with dyscalculia may have to count the objects to be sure

How to Overcome Maths Phobia?

Parents Guidance: Parents have a greater role in the child’s education and they try to provide support to their children in a variety of ways. Most of the Parents find it difficult to help the child with mathematics As a part of the treatment of their kids to improve mathematics learning and performance, the parents need counselling that will change their attitude and perspective of formal mathematics as well as an improvement in formal mathematical skills. A certain amount of time is needed in problem-solving in moderation will keep your child mathematically healthy. Five to ten minutes of problem-solving a day for a month is far better than 2hrs for three days in terms of output. Or solving 20 problems in one day gives less learning than solving 3 problems daily for one week. This change is needed in the work method. Also needed is to integrate formal school mathematics within home and community and make efforts to better the perception of mathematics so that positive adjectives will be used to describe mathematics and learning of mathematics.

Make it Exciting: Maths needs to be enjoyable for children. Certain activities and games are adapted which can be played normally. The activities involved jumping, running, playing cards, puzzles, creating as well as listening to rhymes and stories etc. Running or jumping along the number line or number grid to reach a called out number is one such activity which parents can get their children to do. To make this more interesting, enjoyable and easy for the card games have been designed. Similar card games have been designed for fractions and number operations.

Means of Teaching: There are a huge number of books and workbooks available for school and home use. If one lacks confidence, they can always use one of these. There are people who will undertake private maths coaching if your child wants to know more than you can cope with, and there are Internet resources and CD-Roms that do the direct teaching.

Catch Them Young: To make sure that a kid doesn’t develop Maths Phobia introduce Maths at an early age. A good and colourful maths workbooks teach basic numeracy. Exposure to Numbers graphically creates curiosity. At some point your child may ask about the number symbols: perhaps spots them in a book, or see them on houses. Talk about why we use numbers and what they mean, but make sure you explain that the numbers are just shorthand for the concept, not anything mystical in themselves.

Variation in Approach: If you introduce the arithmetic symbols, explain that ‘2+2=4’ is simply an easier way of writing ‘If we have two elephants and then another two elephants arrive to join them, there will be four elephants altogether’. Some children like to invent their own arithmetic symbols – encourage this. If your child wants to draw a little picture to represent the apples or elephants after each number, this is fine. This is actually algebra, which needs to be understood at a basic level before pure arithmetic can make sense. Too many teachers – particularly in previous years – introduce the counting numbers and their symbols before most of the children have begun to grasp the algebraic concepts behind numbers and the reasons we use them.

(The author is a retired Principal and an Educational Columnist)


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