Babies really should come with warnings taped to them: “May break if dropped,” “Contains explosive material” and, most important, “Likely to cause math anxiety.”
The anxiety won’t set in immediately, of course. Babies aren’t inherently mathematically complex, since they come with two of nearly everything (but only one of other things, although if I need to tell you that, you probably shouldn’t have one).
No, the panic arrives later, when your children come home with their textbooks written in Sanskrit and ask you for help. For a moment, you may want to tell them, “My parents never helped me with homework, not once, because they were at work or asleep or drinking gin from jam jars on the back porch,” but you don’t, because you want to set your child on a path to a non-ditch-digging future. And that path to success can only be achieved, we are told, by solving this quadratic equation. The other path is signposted “Ruin.”
Math anxiety is a thing now, if you haven’t noticed. And if you haven’t noticed, you either have no children, or have actual problems to worry about, or are the most remarkably well-adjusted person on the planet, in which case would you like to help my children with their math homework?
Simply put, math anxiety is the fear that numbers work for everyone but you, that math is a foreign language you can’t speak and don’t have the facility to learn. Check out the bookshelves, groaning with texts to cure this condition: Overcoming Math Anxiety, Mind Over Math, and my favourite, Math Anxiety Relief for Nearly Everyone. (I like the slight hedging of the subtitle. Nearly everyone, except for the guy who thinks “prime number” refers to a really hot babe.)
It’s a rich field of academic research that shows anxiety can be viral – passed on from teacher to student, or from parent to child. Young women are particularly susceptible; I realized that I’d passed on my own phobia when I saw that my daughter had drawn an unhappy face next to the word “math” in her homework agenda.
But what happens when math anxiety jumps from the individual to the society as whole, from the micro to the macro? We seem to be in the midst of a full-blown panic over Canadian math scores, which are falling in the international PISA rankings, and in some provinces.
This newspaper has documented “math wrath,” an uprising of outraged parents, like the Peasants’ Revolt, only armed with protractors instead of pitchforks. “Back to basics” is their war cry. Petitions to overhaul provincial curricula are flying. Kumon is crammed, math tutors are enjoying a rare moment in the sun, perhaps even being allowed into the VIP section of some nightclubs. The Ontario government has just announced $4-million to support math training for elementary teachers. Manitoba’s math curriculum is returning to basics.
Everyone wants to achieve the same goals: Children should learn math as effectively as possible, with a minimum of hair-pulling. How to get there is a matter of huge debate in educational circles, and it probably isn’t helped by parental neuroses over Tyler’s inability to multiply fractions by the age of 9. Math anxiety takes on a new dimension: It’s not about the numbers now, but about parents’ worries over an ever-shifting future.
The problem is that we have started to think of our children as future employees, even the ones who can’t yet put on their own snow suits, and the world as increasingly Hobbesian battle for a few good slots in the matrix. “Math,” in this blinkered mindset, is shorthand for “job.” (And studies do point to a correlation between good math scores in school and higher earnings later, if you want to use income as the sole measure of individual success.) But we’re educating humans, not mass-producing widgets. They need to learn to tie their shoelaces before they can worry about their pension plans.
Math is obviously a crucial part of a child’s education, but it’s not the only part. I keep waiting for people to complain about the cuts to music education, and to storm provincial offices demanding to know why their kids can’t tell the difference between a treble clef and a demisemiquaver. Where are the shouts of “The Czechs are killing us in cello! The end is nigh!”
Is the end really nigh? Will slipping numeracy reduce our children to slinging hash in the great global food court?
There are some educators who react to the hysteria over international test rankings with a dose of smelling salts. Diane Ravitch, a New York University professor of education, takes exception to the narrow parameters of what’s actually being measured. She recently wrote, “The scores tell us nothing about students’ imagination, their drive, their ability to ask good questions, their insight, their inventiveness, their creativity.”
She was writing about American students’ scores, but the same applies north of the border. In other words, sit back, relax and count to 10.