Girls, math learning life cycle, and math anxiety

Yesterday I was working with a homeschooling senior girl who has not been able to learn Algebra at home. She and mom are facing graduation in a few months with an enormous sense of accumulated failure, shame, anxiety and confusion. This is not the first time I’ve sat with a teen who has teared up and cried over math. And it is (almost) always a girl. Boys can also have math anxiety, but it is less common, and their reaction to it is often very different, they often simply brush it off as “not their thing” and focus on what they are good at, without hanging on to a stigma that they can’t do it.

We’re working on a game plan to help her accomplish the most with what time she has left before graduation. She wants to go to college and become a business major, and she believed math to be a barrier to her goal. She will need to take her SATs by July for her college plans, and that has been putting even more pressure on her. When I pulled out a beginning algebra resource to see how much she knew, she told me she remembers none of it. None of the problems looked familiar, none of the terms were familiar. Just looking at the math problems made her break down. The way she verbalized it is that the video lessons she’s been using assume she understands and knows things she really never understood.

Digging deeper, I found out she is a visual learner, and color helps her understand things. It’s clear that her math curriculums have made math too abstract too soon for her. She’s been trying to climb a ladder with the bottom rungs removed. So I had her try something she could understand – Hands on Equations. The change in her attitude was visible after I explained the rules and demonstrated the link between the game pieces and the algebraic equations. In a short time period, we worked through problems all the way up to the 10th lesson, including the idea of negative numbers, which she said she never understood. She understood this way of looking at it, however, including understanding a crucial concept in algebra, why adding the opposite to something is zero. Seeing that she could solve an algebraic equation fully understanding everything she was doing, and that she was able to check the answer, understanding why the check worked, created nearly a complete 180 in terms of her demeanor. She went from being anxious and down on herself to reaching out to manipulate pieces herself and verbalize the process and reasoning correctly, with confidence that THIS was something she could understand and do.

She has a way to go, but something as simple as this gives hope that she can learn algebra, something mom and daughter have been missing. Mom had to take Algebra 1 twice at the JC before she finally passed it. She never got Algebra in high school, and she thought she had remedied her inability to help her daughter by investing in a well-known math curriculum with video lessons taught by a qualified teacher. But her daughter had picked up her math anxiety regardless, and without a way for the daughter to gain the perspective she needed to understand what she was doing, it was making the situation worse. Some kids only begin to get math for the first time in a junior college environment when they get an experienced teacher who cares about their learning process, and who is willing to spend time with students one on one in office hours or provide other resources to support their learning. That has been our experience with many local JC math instructors here.

This reminded me of how important it is to protect our kids’ attitudes and beliefs in their ability to learn math in the early years, because if they don’t believe they can do it, no amount of teaching will yield any benefits. Jo Boaler talks about this and the brain science behind it in her TED talk. Laura Overdeck, the author of the Bedtime Math series, has a TEDx talk specific to girls growing up “allergic to algebra.” Particularly if you are homeschooling girls, this is worth watching all the way through. Another TEDx video I watched today referenced the same study Laura cites, that the brain evidences math anxiety on an MRI the same way we respond with fear to real danger. But while we are born with a healthy instinctive response to fear danger, we aren’t born with a fear of math. That is something that is learned by how we get exposed to math in our early years.

To those of you with kids in elementary, what Laura talks about with the idea of bedtime math is really spot on. I wish she had alluded to the fact that there are LOTS of engaging math readers out there now. I was able to do hours and hours of vibrant bedtime math with my kids before Laura’s books were published by reading math readers with my kids at bedtime. They were loved just as much as readers without math themes, sometimes more so. It’s been many years now, all my kids are adults and two are in college, but a description of how we learned math reading at bedtime with some of the youngest of these books can be found here. We also did activities with MathStart readers, or the I Love Math series, or Anno’s books. I have not updated my math reader lists for new publications in a while, but many of these books are in libraries or are available used from online booksellers even if they are out of print.

Talking with my adult kids today, I feel that these bedtime math sessions in the preschool and elementary years had more benefit to their early math education than any other things that we did. When they got to 6th grade and beyond, we found them wanting and being able to handle more and more formal math presentations, because they had so much early context and understanding to build on. We started Hands On Equations with our kids as young as 7 years old, putting it away when it started to get too difficult, pulling it out again 6 months or a year later, never making it something you had to clean up your plate and finish. But by age 11, they had finished and had a deep understanding of crucial algebraic concepts that you don’t get when you start out with abstract notation, unless you have one of those few kids who can seem to fill this in for themselves.

Julie Brennan