Higher Maths Anxiety – Is It Any Different From Fear And Anxiety

The Daily Mail today has a story about how maths CAN really make your head hurt, which reports on the rather more sober article in “Plos One” by Sian Beilock and Ian Lyons from University of Chicago.

It seems to me they’re really talking about panic, fear and embarrassment.  Just about everyone has had the experience of being in a class room when the teacher has just asked a question and is scanning round the class for someone to answer

Don’t pick me

Please don’t pick me

Oh Please don’t pick me

In many ways maths questions are worse than those from other subjects as there is not the option of giving your opinion, there is only one answer and you’ve either got it or you haven’t.

And if you don’t know the answer you’re worried about looking

  • foolish
  • ignorant
  • or stupid

Panic effects all of us, even me, even now.

The trick is learning to deal with it.

One way is to have a definite method to work out the answer

Another way is having enough experience of answering questions that you have the confidence you will be able to solve the problem, even though you may not have the answer right now.

Our brains can only cope with so many thoughts at anyone time, and if your brain is fully occupied with pictures and feelings of impending doom, there isn’t enough brain power left for thinking through to the answer.

Starting Arithmetic is not about rote learning, at least not in the usual sense.  When my children were growing up I showed them how it was much better to learn methods for solving problems, rather than just trying to memorise answers.  In Starting Arithmetic I just wrote down what I used to tell my children so you can tell your children or grandchildren.

Over the last year or so I have been campaigning over plans by the UK Environment Agency (EA) to knock down sea walls near where I live and let the sea flood farm land, parks and homes on the grounds that it is “uneconomic” to maintain sea walls.

I have written about this on another of my blogs, JeremyShiers.com/blog, and given talks.

After a recent talk someone asked me how I was doing with Starting Arithmetic and offered to help as she is a governor at a local school.

Then she said of course I’ve always been rubbish at maths, even times tables (strong positive statements always help!).  This is someone with grown children so well past school days.

So I explained there are 66 different answers in the times tables from 2×2 to 12×12

And if you use your imagination to see things written down in your mind some of the answers are easy.

Really really easy.

In the 10 table just see whatever number your are multiplying by 10 with a zero after it

So 5×10  is  5 0  or fifty

From 2×10 to 12×10 there are 11 answers, 1/6 of all there are to learn.

How hard was that?

Up to 9×11 things are almost as easy, whatever number you are multiplying 11 by you just see written down twice.

9×11 = 9 9 or ninety nine

3×11 = 3 3 or thirty three

So far she agreed things were easy but when we got to 9 times table there was a small panic attack.

There are 3 steps for numbers from 9×2 to 9×9 (we can already do 9×10 and 9×11)

And we make use of the fact that in the 9 times table when you add the digits they always come to 9.

  1. 0 + 9
  2. 1 + 8
  3. 2 + 7
  4. 3 + 6
  5. 4 + 5

There are only 5 pairs of digits, though they may come in either order for example

  • 18 in eighteen
  • 81 in eighty one

To multiply a number by 9 from 2 up to 9:

  • Whatever number you are multiplying by 9, multiply by 10
  • Make the number in the tens column 1 smaller
  • Choose whatever number for the units which makes 9 when you add it to what’s in the tens column

So for  7×9

  • 7×10 = 70
  • 70 has a 7 in the tens column, one less is 6 so 60
  • 6 + 3 = 9 so the answer to 7×9 is 63

Now I have to say at this point there was a little panic, a wobble if you like. But the moment passed and the correct answer was found.

Perhaps it was wishful thinking or just my imagination but I thought I detected a little pride in achieving what had been felt to be unachievable only minutes before.

Probably my only contribution was being there, if I hadn’t been there I feel that she would have just given up.  But as I was,  she thought a little longer, perhaps thirty seconds and got the right answer.

It is worth pointing out that the entire conversation from

  • I’ve always been rubbish at maths
  • To 7×9 is 63

was at the most 10 minutes.

And in that 10 minutes we covered

  1. 11 answers in 10 times table
  2.  8 answers in 11 times table
  3.  8 answers in  9 times table

So 27 answers in all out of a total of 66!!! Over 40% of all there is to learn.

As Franklin D. Roosevelt said

We have nothing to fear except fear itself.

Learning at home should be a much safer environment for your children as they can make mistakes without fear of being judged as stupid by the peers or teachers.

And after all a mistake isn’t a mistake if you learn from it.

In helping your children learn, even simple things like times tables, you are giving the the confidence they can learn, that they can be right.  Such confidence is essential.  In the words of Henry Ford.

If you think you can

Or think you can’t

You’re probably right


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