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6 Ways how to transform fear of math into love

Thursday, September 24, 2009 6 Ways how to transform fear of math into love

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Julie was my student in the class "What Is Math". She was so afraid of Math that she never even looked at the board whenever anything mathematical was mentioned. One early morning Julie came to my office, handed me a paper and said: "Dani, I just woke up from a most vivid nightmare and wrote it down a few minutes ago, please read it". I took the paper from her hand and read the following story that will forever stay with me. This is what Julie wrote:

"I was sitting in a classroom with about 50 other students. Among them were my small high school class and also my current "What Is Math" class. The teacher locked the door and gave each one of us a fifty page Math test saying that only those students who pass the test will be allowed to leave the room. I knew that my best friend Katherine will pass since she knew Math well. Indeed, after just a few minutes Katherine completed the test and gave it to the teacher who flipped through the pages and said "You did not pass". The Math teacher then tied Katherine to her chair with a rope, poured some gasoline from a can around her, struck a match and Katherine was burned alive in front of my wide open eyes. I could not close them. I decided to approach the teacher and ask for an extension. To my surprise he agreed and unlocked the door for me. I went for a walk and there I met you Dani and asked you for help but you refused. That instant I woke up with two questions and their answers: "Why didn't Dani help me?" (Answer: Because I could do it on my own) and "What is Math?" (Answer: Math Is Love)".

A girl holding a flower with mathematical patterns

Julie dreamed this nightmare many years ago when she was sophomore at college. By expressing her dream in writing she was able to release the terror that tormented her. This continued with letters containing fun mathematical puzzles and ended with Julie being the mother of two wonderful children who LOVE math. Julie’s story is an example of transforming fear with love and creativity. Julie’s dream demonstrates the fear and terror that many young children develop when they are forced to learn math in a way that does not fit their nature or when they are not ready for a certain mathematical concept.

There must be something wrong with me

A girl in  card board home which was part of card board city.

Learning through fear never works. There is no true learning that way. Sometimes a negative thought form creeps into a child’s mind and unless released prevents growth. I once had a student named Sharon who was very good in many subjects including elementary matrix theory but was not able to add fractions. She approached me after the final math exam and excitedly said:

"Dani, now I know what my problem is. While working on the test I was transported in my mind to first grade. The teacher asked a math question and everyone knew the answer except me. I thought that there must be something wrong with me with respect to math and did not realize that I simply came from another Kindergarten and was never taught the concept. This negative thought stayed with me for many years and prevented me to learn some basic math skills like adding fractions"

From fear to love

Thea in the Icosahedron  in 2009 Earth Day in Ithaca NY

Most kids love puzzles and games but when they go to school they start hating it. Take Julia for example. She was an A+ student at college but, as shown in her web journey From Fear to Love, math was a demon for her. She took the course "What Is Math" and by the end of the course her negative feelings were transformed. Julia’s story is a true inner experience of a student who experienced intense fear of math from a young age. Not because math was bad but because the way it was taught made no sense to the young growing minds.

Group of excited kids focusing on a game that one of them created in the 2009 Math Camp

But there is good news too: Recent research shows that math is hard wired to our brains, which explains why so many people of all ages love to solve puzzles. In his book The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics Stanislas Dehaene proves what many folks felt intuitively for ages: That every human being can learn math in their own way. See also Brian Butterworth work. Math is everywhere, in the inner worlds and the outer worlds.

Two kids programming a game Computer Art created with a Mathematical language for kids developed through famailymath.org

So how can we bridge the gap between fear centered learning to that vibrant world of MEANING and FUN? Here are 6 suggestions:

1. Become aware of the fear. Bring it to consciousness. Write it down and play it out. Try to connect with early memories like Sharon did and share it in your journal or with a trusted friend.

2. Realize how much Math you do already. Math is everywhere. It is a language that expresses ideas just like music and English. Notice if you “put yourself down” with respect to Math. Use positive affirmations. Slowly but surely your negative and untrue “mathematical self image” will become positive.

3. Have fun with math. Solving puzzles is math. This is all that mathematicians do. They just like to play and solve puzzles. Don’t judge the level of difficulty of puzzles. Just have fun solving them.

4. When shopping, try to do some mental math. For example, estimate a restaurant bill or compute the exact sale tax before the cashier tells you.

5. Find some fun math sites on the internet. There is so much there. For example conceptispuzzles.com or mathcats.com

6. Study music. Music and math are intimately connected. See for example pianokids.com

About the photographs (top to bottom)

  • A girl holding a flower with mathematical patterns
  • A girl in card board home which was part of card board city.
  • Thea in the Icosahedron in 2009 Earth Day in Ithaca NY
  • Group of excited kids focusing on a game that one of them created in the 2009 Math Camp
  • Two kids programming a game
  • Computer Art created with a Mathematical language for kids developed through familymath.org

About the author

Dr. Dani Novak is an Associate Professor at Ithaca College Department of Mathematics and co-founder of familymath.org which organizes free math workshops, math days and math summer camps for children. You can read more about Novak at http://faculty.ithaca.edu/novak and http://www.ithaca.edu/dani

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