Math Trauma

The thought of going to university always scared me. I knew whatever I ended up taking I would inevitably have to take a math class maybe even more than one. I have Math Trauma, anxiety that  I didn’t know was a real thing until I took my first university math class. From the very first day of that math class, I automatically would get frustrated and shut down trying to relearn even the basics. I shed a few tears at home and would express my inability to learn math to my partner. He would sit down and try to explain things to me from a different perspective and I would always just shut down. It took alot of patients and deep breaths for me to be able to sit down and actually learn the math that is required of me to become a teacher but once I got over the anxiety it became easier. Growing up math was never my strong suit, adding and subtracting sure, but X+Y=C mumbo jumbo and multiplication was always something I HATED. Being told to recite the times tables quickly from memory as a young child was very oppressive to me, and something I still can’t do at the drop of a hat. I sat at the dinner table many nights growing up crying over my math homework because I didn’t understand what was being asked of me. My parents tried to help but it was always something  I struggled with the concept of different aspects, it didn’t always make sense in my mind. There was always only one correct way of doing things, and no other way was acceptable even if there happened to be other ways to get to the same answer. 

I think what  Gale talks about in her lecture about making math relatable is a great way to help students of all ages learn math in ways that make sense to the individual instead of math as something academic cold and inflexible. We use fractions and division in our lives daily and it’s a great way to incorporate math into the curriculum without forcing mandatory worksheets and tests as the only way to learn math. One of the biggest Eurocentric ideas about math is that math needs to be written down in the tradition number sense that 12345… ect are universal and mean the same thing to everyone no matter where you live and this just is not true. Especially when we think about the Inuit people and their meanings of words and numbers and how different numbers also have different meanings.. Sometimes there isn’t even a  Inuit translation that would equate to the Eurocentric mathematical definition. Some numbers have means that serve a purpose that pertains to the lives of the Inuit. Which does not mean that the Inuit people are any less of a mathematician than the rest of the world they just have their own ways of doing it that is just as correct as the way other people do it.

5 thoughts on “Math Trauma

  1. Tara

    There’s a very real phenomenon called “math anxiety” you can find it in the literature, and it’s something I’ve experienced myself at University, whilst trying to struggle through second year math..Unfortunately the literature has also shown that the higher the math anxiety in teachers, the more likely this phenomenon is going to develop in your students, it’s also found to be more pronounced in women than men. A reason I am working to overcome the problem. I don’t want my own anxiety to rub off on my students. Even without studies, it makes sense, teachers that are confident themselves in their ability have an expectation that the students are capable, and this expectation often carries students a long way. The pick up on the belief that they CAN do it, and even if they run into some difficulties, they will keep going simply because they know they can. Alternatively, if you believe you suck at math, and run into a tough problem, you’re 10 times more likely to quit. “You won’t be able to get it anyway, so why struggle through” even though the most growth actually happens in the struggle and the wrestle with the material. So in many cases it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.
    Math anxiety tends to start in primary school, because a lot of primary school teachers end up becoming primary school teachers because of their poor mathematical abilities, and beliefs that they are “bad at math”. This then starts to impact the students in primary school, so the problem has already began to be developed in students, especially more so in women, before highschool subconsciously. Not my words, but what I’ve discovered from researching this topic. I’m studying to be a math teacher, though I’m not particularly great at math, I’ve spent lots of time procrastinating and shed quite a few tears when my head locks up and I can’t even recall a basic 6+7 without doubting myself. Anxiety affects me in a way that I become really slow and confused, exactly as you describe and I need a sentence repeated 3-5 times just to understand what’s being said. The thing that gets me through is the knowledge that “Yes, I CAN do this” and also the knowledge that there’s no such thing as being “bad at math.” (See mathematical mindset). This is a MYTH we’ve been taught that you’re either good at math or bad at math. And completely untrue. It might take a bit more determination and hard work but our brains are neuroplastic and have phenomenal abities, it depends what habits you build. Math is simply a habit. Also, the school program forgets we are individuals and leant at different rates and the one size fits all model, often means that if you need to take a bit longer to understand a concept, or need to spend more time pondering and processing, or thinking about something in a different way, the school system does not allow for this Extremely damaging and not at all designed to teach students to think, just to re-iteterate and do “computational” type math, which involves very little thinking. Identify the type of problem, plug in a formula and away you go. Not much thinking involved, more categorising and identifying. If you research “mathematical mindset” you will find studies showing that both belief, and hard-work directly affect your mathematical ability. Sometimes you must wrestle, and a lot of the time my anxiety kicks in, but I’m becoming better at identifying it, and instead of thinking “how stupid and slow are you I’ll never get this – shut up anxiety brain, I don’t want to listen to you” I acknowledge that my anxiety has kicked in, and take a short walk, practice breathing or a number of other techniques, I let it pass and then get back to it. I find once the pressure is off, my mind relaxes and expands and sometimes it takes a while to process. This is NORMAL, especially when thought patterns are undergoing growth. In short, if you work at math – you WILL improve, it’s that simple. So don’t let your anxiety stop you from becoming amazing at math and enjoying it as you were meant to. It might take us a little longer, but that’s part of the challenge. Math is problem solving and anyone with a brain has problem solving abilities. There is also no one correct way of working out a problem,or one way of understanding something. So, acknowledge your trauma, at least you’ve identified the root cause, and work through that with counselling, but really math is just the trigger, not the underlying anxiety – that’s a whole bunch of other things.
    Meanwhile, math is just a habit and a way of thinking, a way of training your brain. Our brains are supercomputers and if you put enough information into them, you will start to develop the “intuition” that many math whizzes appear to have. Repetition, practice, eat, sleep, rest repeat.

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  2. Jessica McCullough

    Thank you sharing your story!
    I am sorry to hear your negative experience with math growing up and although I can certainly relate to it, it makes me think of how many other student have and are currently going through this same situation. Do you think how you feel about math will effect the way you approach math in school, and in a positive or negative way?

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  3. Haylee

    I really enjoyed reading your post! Thank you for sharing your struggles with math. I can personally relate to the frustration with the university math class. After graduating high school I would have never thought I would need to take another math class. Going into my first semester of university I ended up jinxing it and I needed to take a required math class. Luckily for both of us, we got through it and hopefully we will never need to take another math course (other than teaching our own classes haha!).

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  4. Kennedy Glascock

    I really related to this post! I also have suffered from some pretty severe math trauma. I remember crying multiple times trying to study for my math foundations 20 tests. To this day I still shudder when I see my old notes. I know it is never a teachers intention to make students feel like this, but i think it happens often nonetheless. If I was to be a math teacher I would try to have the same outlook as Gale. I think if my math classes where more relate able I might have had more success.

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  5. Kaeli

    Thanks for sharing your experience, I think that is a reality for many people. It seems that math is often taught in a narrow way and those that don’t get it are forced to try and keep up. It makes me wonder how we can do better as teachers and not create this fear of math that many people have.

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