An Unnatural Fear of Mathematics

Fear of Mathematics: Launch of Apollo 11
Fear of Mathematics: Quadratic Equation
This quadratic equation has contributed to a fear of mathematics in many a student. Design: Jamie Twells (PD) via Wikipedia.org.

One of the courses I’m currently teaching at Benedicto College, Mandaue City, Cebu, Philippines, is college algebra. Most of the students seem to harbor an unnatural fear of mathematics. This got me to wonder about the origins of such fears.

Is a fear of mathematics social? Is it learned from other students as sort of a shared hysteria or paranoia? Did such fear derive from poor teaching earlier? Or is there something intrinsicly terrifying about math? What is the source of a fear of mathematics and how do you overcome such fear?

Fear, by itself, can blind a person. It can overwhelm the senses and the intellectual logic of a person, making them incapable of seeing solutions that are otherwise quite obvious. For that matter, any strong decision about reality can alter one’s perception of reality. One symptom of this we typically call “arrogance.” In eastern philosophy, it’s sometimes referred to as the “full cup,” because there is no room for them to learn anything new.

Fear Itself

If you can get rid of the emotion, then some sanity can go to work on the problem of understanding. I started the semester with the bold statement that math is fun. I received some nervous chuckles, but mostly looks of disbelief. Then I had the gall to say that math is easy. I wrote on the board, “1 + 1 = 2.” I said, “Math is easy as this.” I hoped that I had planted a seed which would help them overcome their fear of mathematics.

A few weeks into the semester, before the preliminary exam, I mentioned again this notion of fear and reiterated my earlier statement that math is as easy as “1 + 1 = 2.” The laughter seemed more relaxed this time. I told them that if they can at least laugh at the fear, then the fear becomes weaker. Without that fear, it becomes easier to see possible solutions.

Conquering the Fear of Mathematics

Fear of Mathematics: Einstein in 1921 had no such fear.
Einstein in 1921. He was one of the smartest people in history. He had no fear of mathematics. Photo: Ferdinand Schmutzer (PD), via Wikipedia.org.

For all my life, math has been easy. Perhaps I have had an unnatural gift. Or perhaps it is simply an appreciation of simplicity.

Einstein once said that if you cannot explain physics to a barmaid, then you do not know physics. The truth behind this statement is both profound and beautiful. Rote memorization of steps is not the same thing as understanding. Anyone can go through the steps of mathematics and teach those steps, but if they don’t understand what those steps mean, then they will be uninspiring as a teacher, at best. At worst, such a teacher will instill an even greater fear of mathematics in their students, because the steps the students are being taught have no connection to reality.

I ran into a little bit of this when one student said that the method I was teaching did not match how they had been taught. When moving a variable or constant from one side of an equation to the other, they merely switched signs. As a method, it can work, but there was no understanding for why such a thing was done. Teaching this method without understanding can only cripple a student’s appreciation of the subject. Rote memorization of steps is a poor substitute for simple understanding. My thought, earlier, that poor teaching had contributed to their fear of mathematics became reinforced.

Equations have the property that both sides are balanced with each other. If you add a value to, or subtract a value from, one side of an equation, you need to do the same to the other side in order to maintain that balance. I’ve seen students do some crazy things, because they did not understand this simple idea. No matter how many times I repeated the simplicity, students still kept making the same or similar mistakes. Perhaps they were still in the clutches of that ever-present fear of mathematics.

Yet, some students seemed to be thriving. They loved mathematics. In one of my classes, I had several students make exceptional grades. With a little research, I found out why. All of them were accounting program students. If they were entering a degree program in accountancy, they already loved numbers.

At first, it surprised me when most of the information technology students did poorly. Then I realized that the students had little idea what they were getting into. Computers are all about calculations. Math is essential. To them, however, computers were all games and Facebook. They did not have a clue.

The Future

Fear of Mathematics: Launch of Apollo 11
When Apollo 11 was launched to the Moon on July 16, 1969, scientists had worked hard for a decade with no fear of mathematics. Photo: NASA (PD) via Wikipedia.org.

I have heard of programs being implemented in the United States that seem to make subjects like mathematics more friendly to students. They seemed to make it okay to get the wrong answer and seemed to imply that mathematics is subjective, anyway. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Has the government gone entirely nuts in America? Perhaps not yet, but they seem to be ruining the education system.

I believe in God and the Bible, but some people interpret the Bible in funny, dogmatic ways that seem to ignore reality. And when people are detached from reality, they are living in delusion. Declaring that the universe is only 6,000 years old and that science is evil is not helping education, either. And when the school board members of Texas, in America, where a great bulk of America’s textbooks are published, try to sway the curriculum of the educational topics, I fear education may become corrupted with false teachings and religious dogma.

I know that some very good teachers will not put up with it. Bless them all. With them, we can help a few students overcome their fear of mathematics. We can help them learn well enough to understand the meaning behind the steps.

Have you had problems with a fear of mathematics? Have you found any solutions of your own?

This article was originally published 2014:0720 on InfinityDynamics.org

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