Math tends to be seen as one of the most notoriously hated subjects taught in school. After learning the basics of adding and subtracting, we can start to feel overwhelmed when new formulas start to appear. According to Jennifer Ruef, a professor from the University of Oregon, this is a form of something called “math trauma” that many have experienced in their lives.
While writing for The Conversation in November 2018, Ruef defined the mathematical debilitation as a “mental shutdown when it comes to doing mathematics.” She says this manifests in us as anxiety or dread based on a fear of simply being wrong. The aversion to math is stemmed from an emphasis on speed most kids are put through when learning to solve equations. “People who struggle to complete a timed test of math facts often experience fear, which shuts down their working memory,” Ruef explained. Even being good at those timed tests can cause the trauma, however. Believing you’re good at math because you’re able to compute things quickly can lead to a “fragile math identity” — meaning the first time you actually do struggle with an equation can lead to the same traumatic shutdown response.
You probably remember learning drills for multiplication tables and division equations. Instead of knowing why 3 x 5 = 15, we just memorized it as an easily-forgotten fact. Ruef says this method has been outdated for decades, but somehow remained the norm in schools. Instead, she recommends bringing wonder and joy into learning math instead — even for those of us who are already well out of school and claim to be “bad with numbers.” Games like Sudoku can help your mind rebound from the trauma and learn unpack the equations. You’ll also feel the validation of a completed puzzle, which will encourage your brain to stop shying away from numbers altogether.
If you’re helping one of the youngsters in your life with their math homework, have them explain why they came to the conclusion they found rather than simply moving on from each right answer. Using visuals can help them really absorb the information, too. Either way, there’s hope for anyone who thinks they just don’t have a head for numbers.