Guest Blog: Helping Girls Overcome Math Anxiety
We all have gaps in our broad base of knowledge. I am woefully ignorant about math. Sure, I can balance my checkbook and manage my personal finances, even figure out basic percentages and deal with compound interest. But that’s just basic arithmetic. Show me an algebraic equation, and my eyes glaze over in record time.
Or at least that used to be the case. A couple of years ago, I decided enough was enough, and started to teach myself calculus. Not only did I discover that this seemingly useful branch of math was relevant to my daily life, I also found it wasn’t nearly as scary and difficult as I’d always assumed it would be.
I’ll never be a whiz at calculus – that comes with years of practice – but I learned the basics and have a new appreciation for all things math. I no longer cringe when I see an equation. And I also gleaned some useful lessons that could help parents steer their kids away from falling into the “I hate math” trap – particularly their daughters.
Take math outside the classroom and find examples in everyday life. I never took calculus or physics in school. I discovered physics when I became a science writer, and started talking to scientists firsthand. I visited labs, read about the rich history, and had the chance to see firsthand how physics is done in the real world, not in a standard classroom. It made the subject come alive for me in a way a textbook never could.
When I set about learning calculus, I adopted a similar approach, finding the math wherever I happened to be: learning to surf in Hawaii, househunting with my husband, or relishing the rides at Disneyland. Math is literally all around us, but the traditional curriculum doesn’t always capture what doing math is really like. Most of us just don’t resonate well to how the subject is usually taught. Our brains don’t work that way. But make it relevant to us in some tangible way, and we become far less resistant, even interested.
Foster a healthy attitude toward failure and focus on learning instead of grades. I was a perfectionist as a teenager, terrified of doing the wrong thing, or of getting the wrong answer. Because math didn’t come as easily to me as other subjects, I just assumed I lacked the ability to excel at it – despite getting top grades in the few math classes I did take. Deep down, I knew I didn’t fully grasp why I was plugging in numbers; I was just blindly following the rules. So I felt I didn’t deserve the good grades, and that colored my attitude towards math as an adult. That adolescent form of Imposter Syndrome chipped away relentlessly at my confidence in my own ability.
I am not alone in this. Many of the people I spoke to about their dislike of math said that it started when they failed at their first attempt at algebra, for example – and that failure shattered their confidence. Or, like me, they knew they didn’t really understand it.
Perhaps if we all had healthier attitudes towards failure, fewer high school students would develop such a profound dislike of math. Failure is how we learn, after all, and it’s an unavoidable reality of adulthood. I faced down an irrational fear that had haunted me for years: a fear of failure, with all the kneejerk avoidance and dislike of numbers that comes from that. Any time we can confront our own self-doubt and fear of failure, it makes us stronger and more empowered. That’s not gender specific. It’s true of both boys and girls.
Don’t let your own negative experiences in math class color your child’s perception of it. Many parents had their own negative experiences in math class, and thus may feel insecure in their grasp of math — particularly once their child reaches algebra and calculus. I once heard a teenaged girl admit to being curious about physics. Her mother assured her daughter that no, she didn’t want to take a physics class! It’s not fun at all and anyway, “You don’t like math and wouldn’t be good at it.”
It’s true that the math and physics curriculum in high school isn’t as fun as encountering physics and math in the outside world. But when will this girl ever get to discover that math and science reveal amazing, hidden patterns in how the world works, if she’s actively discouraged from being interested by her own mother while still in high school?
Even if you hated math in school, encourage your child to explore whatever subject captures her interest. Perhaps you could even use that interest as an opportunity to rediscover the world of math and find a renewed appreciation yourself.