Friday, June 03, 2011

Fear of Math

Fear of Math is real. If one adds 2 + 3 and gets 6, it's not close. It's wrong. All math requires careful approach, careful execution, and careful cross checking. For example, in 2 + 3, start with two fingers, and add three more. The answer is 6. But 2 is even and 3 is odd, and an even plus an odd is always odd, and 6 isn't odd. All this careful stuff requires a huge investment, and if there is a perception of likely failure, the return on investment calculation (which for some reason is easy for everyone as it is a right brain function though apparently with output directly to the amygdala) comes up negative. It's no wonder that no one wants to do it. Just for fun, anxiety shuts down short term memory. Proof positive that God isn't very smart - though one can sort of see the evolutionary advantages. The left brain style computations aren't as fast as the right brain reactions. So right brain reactions kept our ancestors from getting eaten more often.

My approach has been mostly to make the math work more reliable. For example, when my son was adding 2 + 3, he got 4, 1/3rd of the time, 5, 1/3rd of the time and 6, 1/3rd of the time. I had to watch him do this quite a bit before i figured out that he somehow was taught counting on his fingers in an unreliable manner. I introduced him to the Japanese abacus, and in twelve weeks his addition and subtraction was reliable. I then showed him that he could use his fingers like an abacus (for two digits), and his math scores went from behind the class to ahead. Also, every time we were in the car, i drilled him mercilessly on "what is seven plus eight", "what is eight plus seven", "what is fifteen minus seven", and "what is fifteen minus eight". He eventually relented and memorized the answers. He was, however, incredibly stubborn. For the record, his memory is astonishingly good. He can normally repeat anything i've said just once in the past year verbatim with minimal prompting.

But in 7th grade, i'd spend all weekend getting him caught up with his homework, and he refused to turn it in. The next weekend, i'd spend all weekend making him do it over. Old homework that was finished started appearing out of nowhere, but i still couldn't get him to turn it in.

I've just reviewed my own K-8 report cards. While i was always at least a little above average in math, in 8th grade all my grades jumped up permanantly. I recall nothing of the sort. My son seems to have had a maturity growth spurt at the end of 7th grade. I hope so.


DQKennard said...

"He can normally repeat anything i've said just once in the past year verbatim with minimal prompting."

Generally speaking, don't kids repeat things *despite* prompting *not* to?

DQKennard said...

My daughter doesn't much like math. She is better at it than she thinks, but because of that dislike, she resists it. She'll learn what she's taught because her grade depends on it, but won't voluntarily explore and make connections. Her weakest area is the rapid arithmetic that is increasingly an assumed tool in calculation. She's currently working on a polynomial factoring unit. That's relatively painless... if one has the flexibility and core arithmetic facts to make good guesses of possible factors, and the systematic organization to efficiently rule out incorrect results.

I think a lot of people have not so much "fear" as an inability to be wrong and move on. They (and I see this in my daughter) don't know how to start, so they just stare at it or otherwise avoid it. They don't get the right answer on the first guess -- or don't know how to confirm it's rightness or wrongness -- and can't get beyond that to try again (using information gained in the failed attempt to improve the next guess).

Stephen said...

The bit about making mistakes and moving on is really apparent in long division. The abacus version of long division is the same as usual, but if you always guess low, it's trivial to recover. This is true for long division on paper too, but i've not seen the "guess low" hint anywhere. My finger math series only goes through addition and subtraction.