Once upon a time, a misunderstood creature by the name of Mathematics lived on the outskirts of a small town. Mathematics was very clever, and sometimes the townspeople would come to ask him questions about astronomy or geography or architecture.
But Mathematics also had a reputation for being difficult, and the townspeople didn’t like to employ him very much. Mathematics made them anxious. They said to their children, “Don’t play with Mathematics. He’s strange and boring. Make friends with someone nice instead, like Reading.”
So the children shunned Mathematics, and in time taught their own children to shun Mathematics, and without his expertise the buildings of the town crumbled and the maps were meaningless and the stars became random lights in the sky.
My little story isn’t particularly subtle, but like all children’s tales it contains an important lesson. Studies have shown that parents of preschool-aged children teach mathematics at home far less than they do subjects like reading and language. Parents report that math is less interesting to children, that they lack enough interest or expertise to properly help their kids and that there should be less emphasis on its teaching in the early years of elementary school.
Researchers have attributed this attitude, in part, to a phenomenon known as “math anxiety”, which is exactly what it sounds like: a feeling of tension or fear that negatively impacts mathematical performance. High math anxiety has been shown to lead to low mathematical achievement and a desire to avoid any future involvement or engagement with mathematics.
Interestingly, while poor mathematical performance can result from high math anxiety, it doesn’t appear to work in reverse; high math anxiety does not stem from poor performance. But it must come from somewhere, and one popular hypothesis is that math anxiety is transferred from authority figures such as parents and teachers.
Parents with high math anxiety often express poor attitudes about math, believing that the subject isn’t useful and possessing little motivation to succeed. This can have a negative impact on their children, who often develop high math anxiety themselves and learn significantly less math over the school year than their counterparts. Researchers have even suggested that students with math-anxious parents actually perform better when their parents aren’t involved in their mathematics education.
Thankfully, there now appears to be a better solution – one that allows even the most math-anxious parent to have a positive influence on their child’s math learning. The key is providing parents with home support that will allow them and their children to interact with mathematics in a positive way. While this support could take the form of worksheets or text books, increasingly it is being delivered via computer games and Internet apps.
The Bedtime Learning Together app, created for research purposes by the University of Chicago, provides children and parents with short reading passages that are followed by a range of mathematical comprehension questions; for example, a brief story about African elephants requires children to work out if they are taller than an elephant’s trunk, or count how many tusks would be present in an elephant gathering. Parents and children are given the opportunity to talk about math in simple, engaging scenarios.
A study published in Science found that when parents and children use the app to interact with mathematics at least once a week, children showed increased math engagement by the end of the school year. This trend was especially apparent in the children of math-anxious parents: it has been suggested that mathematical learning apps help to sever the link between high anxiety in parents and poor mathematical performance in children.
A tablet, an app and a couple of hours a week: that’s all it takes to overcome math anxiety and improve your child’s engagement. And who knows? You just might learn something too.
Nick Nedeljkovic is a freelance writer and blogger from Sydney. With a love of learning and more degrees than he can afford, he’s a passionate advocate for education in all its forms.