Monday, September 12, 2011

Math Fear

If there was only one thing I could give to myself and every other homeschooling parent I know it would be the banishment of fear.  Most of us come from the public school system (or private schooling, another institutionalized form of education) and that is what we know.  Most of the people we associate have children in public or private schools, and so that is what we hear about.  The media screams the idea that schools and children are failing and that the only cure is more.  More drills, more tests, more homework, along with earlier introductions of everything.

Today I would like to talk about math fear.

My public elementary school didn't teach multiplication or fractions in 2nd grade.  Multiplication, even single digit, was taught in 3rd grade.  Fractions were taught in 4th grade.  I was tested and identified as gifted in the 2nd grade and bumped into a 3rd grade math class, so I did learn some things earlier, but I can tell you that what I remember from that class is learning to write supercalifragilisticexpialidocious in cursive.  In 3rd grade I was in a combined 3rd/4th clustered gifted class and I don't remember the academics at all; my memories are of playing Super Friends on the playground (Wonder Twin powers, activate!) and of the two sisters who weren't allowed to participate in learning the Virginia Reel during P.E.  In 4th grade I went to a school that clustered 4th/5th/6th graders and divided us out according to ability (I have since learned how unique this was) so I took 6th grade math, I remember doing simple geometry and more complex fraction work.

In 5th grade I was forced to take 5th grade math as the 6th graders were no longer at our school and I'd taken 6th grade math already.  In 6th grade I went to middle school and got to take 6th grade math again, with the same teacher I'd taken it from in 4th grade.  The point of this is explain that while I may have been allowed to work ahead early on, I then got to spend two years learning nothing new in math.

7th grade was pre-algebra.  8th grade was algebra, taught only to the gifted students and counted toward our high school graduation requirements.  I took two math classes in high school, geometry and advanced algebra.  If anyone had been paying attention to my math aptitude I would have been encouraged (or even required) to take trigonometry and calculus, but my parents left those choices to me, so I did things like took an extra period of band and worked as a teaching assistant for several teachers (my parents approved and considered it akin to an unpaid internship).  My mother was math phobic and my dad thought I should pursue a teaching degree; math just wasn't important to them.  It didn't end up mattering; I majored in English and the hardest math class I was required to take at university was college algebra.

My point it, my parents weren't afraid that I wasn't taking enough math.  They didn't do anything during 5th and 6th grade when I was bored out of my mind and they didn't freak out when I didn't take four years of high school math (or effectively, five years).  Likewise, they didn't worry in kindergarten that math meant coloring shapes and learning numbers, or that 1st grade was basic addition and subtraction.  I was young, after all.

Papa has a college degree in computer science with a minor concentration in mathematics.  He took more high school math than I did; he took four years but only ended up with one more year of high school math because of the algebra I took in junior high.  At no point during his elementary or secondary public education did he work ahead in math.  He didn't have to know place value in 1st grade or long division in 3rd grade.  He learned decimals and percents in 6th grade, didn't take pre-algebra until 8th grade, and took algebra in 9th grade.  This was considered advanced for a student.  It has served him well and he didn't miss out getting into college because of what math classes he took.

That's the thing: you get to college (if you go to college) and you take a math placement test and they figure out where you should start.  I moved right into college algebra, my mother-in-law (who was attending college at the same time Papa and I were) started with remedial math.  She took what she needed to and still got her college degree and teaching credential.  I never took a math class in college past that college algebra.  I too received a degree.  Papa took a lot more math classes because he wanted to pursue a degree and career that required a lot of math.  We all got where we wanted to go.  We all have differing math skills and yet we all function as adults in this society.

These days though, oh my!  The math starts early and hits harder.  More and earlier are the battle cries of school administrators and government representatives.  When I look at it from the outside it seems to me that they can't figure out how to help children understand math so they have moved to dumping it on the students early and often with the hopes that something will stick.  Americans have pinned their hopes on the math skills of children under the age of 7.

What I encounter are children who are absolutely math phobic, and I don't only mean children who attend brick and mortar schools.  There are plenty of math phobic homeschoolers as well; they take the standardized test if they are charter school students, get a result that the teachers don't like, the teachers use scare tactics with the parents (improve these scores or sign your child up for special education), and the parents freak out and put more pressure on the kids.

What I see happening is too much math taught way too early and an entire generation growing up afraid of math because the educational system refuses to wait until their brains are developmentally ready to learn more than basic counting and shape identification.

Growing up it was okay not to like math, but you did it anyway and no one really worried and we didn't have to be afraid that our test scores wouldn't be good enough.  Tutoring centers for elementary school children didn't exist in my world.  We didn't have math homework until junior high school, and then it was something that took less than 30 minutes to complete (or was completed in class).

I didn't prep for the SAT, meaning I didn't pay someone to teach me how to take it.  I took it once my junior year, was pleased as punch with my scores; they were well above average for both males and females but they didn't earn me a mention in the newspaper.  My math score beat out Papa's even though he'd had more math than me.  I didn't try to improve my score by taking the test again my senior year; it didn't matter to me that I had friends who had scored better and my score were good enough to get me into the college I wanted to attend.

I had to deal with some math fear from my own children, a fear that I didn't instill in them.  No, children's books and movies, even the gentle ones, are full of math phobia.  They also have math phobic friends.  One day, in grade 4 I believe, I heard the dreaded words I HATE MATH.  Oh-my-flipping-no-you-don't was what ran through my brain, but I stayed calm and talked to the child in question and realized that he had no idea what he was talking about.  He loves math, he is even math-gifted; what he hates are math practice worksheets.  It makes sense with this child; in general he hates work of almost any kind.  And when math comes easily math worksheets can seem pointless.  But he makes errors on them, so sometimes we still do them.  That is a self-discipline issue and a topic for another blog post, but also something that I am going to research so I can bring practice work to the boys in a way that doesn't created hatred.

I don't worry about where my boys are with their math skills.  Sometimes J-Baby will say that he is behind where he should be in math and I don't even know where he gets that from.  Has he been introduced to every math topic that a 5th grader in public school has been introduced to?  I'm sure he hasn't.  Have they done complex algebra and worked intuitively with other number bases?  Maybe.  Does the math that those children have been introduced to having meaning?  I doubt it.  Do a lot of those children hate math?  I can guarantee it.

We don't like things we are afraid of, plain and simple.  So like I started with, I wish I could gift parents and children with the absence of fear.  I wish them the knowledge that it all works out in the end and that they really don't need to worry and fret and try to overcome the fear by heaping on more of whatever they are afraid of.  Because it is a strategy that doesn't work.  Plain and simple.


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