Rethinking Society's Fear Of Math
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Rethinking Society's Fear Of Math

You may think you're bad at math, but it doesn't have to stay this way

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Rethinking Society's Fear Of Math
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How often have you heard the phrase "I'm just not a math person"? Were you one of the many students who groaned at the prospect of computations and functions, whose mind blanked every time they encountered an equation or formula?

It's all too easy to give up when math is involved, especially when it seems like everyone else dislikes math just as much as you do. The fear of math is so common, in fact, that it has an official name: Math Anxiety, and it's a problem that teachers and tutors must tackle every time they attempt to teach their students math.

Like many, I suffered from math anxiety; in many ways, I still do. My palms would sweat whenever I couldn't use a calculator, and my heart would tighten at the thought of taking another math test. I was convinced that people could be categorized into two groups: those who were good at math, and those who weren't. Those good at math were blessed at birth with the ability to understand numbers and formulas. The rest of us merely had to accept that we would never be a Math Person and move on with our sad, mathless existence.

So imagine my fear when I finally found my calling and decided to major in astrophysics. "I love space!" I would think to myself. "But how will I manage all the math? I'm not smart enough to understand it!"

But after a math-filled year of college, I've come to a shocking realization: math is a skill, just like any other. Like drawing, or gymnastics, or playing the piano, no one is "born" good at math. Instead, it takes years of practice and work to achieve mastery of the skill, and though there are some people who pick it up quicker than most, they too must put in time and effort to truly become math experts.

So why do so many people fear math? Why do we act like mathematics is some unattainable goal, rather than a helpful skill? There are likely many reasons for this, such as the difficulty in "bluffing" on a math test to the fact that, for all intents and purposes, mathematics is a language, and learning a new language is never easy. Perhaps the most important reason people hate math, however, is because we've been told to.

Like many other students, I was taught that my difficulty in math was normal. Whenever I struggled with a homework problem, my mother would shrug helplessly and say, "Oh, you're not good at math; it's okay, neither am I." In elementary school, my teachers never taught math with the same passion that they taught history and grammar. In middle school and high school, my Social Studies, English, and Art teachers would openly joke about how boring and difficult math was. When everyone around you, from friends and parents to teachers and staff members openly deride math, it's difficult for impressionable youngsters not to internalize the message.

This is especially damning for young girls and students of color. While children of all races and genders originally perform equally well on math tests, as they age, white male students gradually start outperforming their female and nonwhite counterparts. Children consume media that stereotype women and people of color as less intelligent and less adept at math and science. Teachers also transfer their own biases and fears onto their students by not encouraging them to succeed in math classes, or by not spending as much time with them as they do their white male students. When they are told their entire lives that they can't succeed, most girls and students of color have little reason to prove these stereotypes wrong.

There is a problem when students struggling is seen as the norm, rather than the exception. Perhaps this is the reason that dyscalculia, a learning disability making it difficult to comprehend arithmetic, is so unknown. In fact, I didn't discover the term until I entered college when my therapist suggested that there may be more to my difficulties in math than a mere lack of studying. Unfortunately, it's all too common for students who may be struggling with this disorder to go under-the-radar until after their academic career is over. While students struggling with reading are tested for dyslexia, students struggling in math are written off as lost causes, no matter how well they perform in other subjects.

Clearly, it's time for a change. If we as a society don't want to bring up the next generation as mathematically illiterate, we need to completely change the way we view math. Students who struggle in math shouldn't be seen as merely "bad at math." Instead, teachers should ask themselves if the student may struggle with a learning disability, or if they need to explain the content in new, innovative ways that might be easier to understand. Additionally, there should be a greater emphasis on why mathematics exists, and how it applies to the real world. Too many people think that math is boring because it's taught through rote memorization and seems disconnected from any real-world problems. If people knew that math was capable of everything from predicting stock-market crashes to unlocking the secrets of the stars, they might be more eager to study formulas and equations.

Though math isn't easy, it doesn't have to be a nightmare, either. Math has the potential to be exciting, surprising, challenging, beautiful and fun, just like any other subject, and it's time for us to realize that.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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