Fear, said math professor and psychologist Dr. Queena Lee Chua, is not a natural reaction. It is a learned one that starts at a young age—a crutch that, if not addressed properly, you cling to for the rest of your life. ILLUSTRATION: STEPH BRAVO
When the mere thought of solving math problems fills you with such trepidation you begin tosweat and your heartbeat races, then you have at some point experienced math anxiety.
In the United States alone, it is estimated that about 50 percent of students experience math anxiety. But fear, said math professor and psychologist Dr. Queena Lee Chua, is not a natural reaction. It is a learned one that starts at a young age—a crutch that, if not addressed properly, you cling tofor the rest of your life.
“Nobody is born with fear. For some students, their fear of math started with the multiplication table, or algebra,” Chua said. Nearly all of them can be traced back to a dreadful, often traumatic encounter with numbers.
College student Tricia (not her real name) has often wondered why she fears math. She’s not a straight A student, but she’s smart and can carry a conversation with ease. But when faced with basic math, such as dividing a restaurant bill plus taxes and tip, she wouldn’t know where to begin.
So where did the fear come from? As it turned out, her anxiety stems from a long-buried memory of her father. He was an engineer and math was his world. She, on the other hand, struggled with numbers. She remembers a father who showed disappointment and embarrassment even before she could begin her homework.
The more she saw his dissatisfaction, the less audacious she became. This insecurity led to her fear of mathematics.
“The thing with math is, the only way to overcome fear is for you to succeed. There is no other way,” Chua said.
She pointed out that even a minor math triumph can mean the world to a student’s self-confidence. This assurance stays with the student to the next exam, and whether he/she fails or succeeds in solving the next set of problems, the seed of confidence has already been planted. Often, this carries over through the entire semester.
The results are not dramatic—the student doesn’t start with Fs and end up earning As—gets passing, if not decent enough grades.
“There’s no such thing as a math genius. It’s not genetic. No one is born with math genes. Math is all about mentoring. So you can begin by raising a problem solver. The heart of mathematics is problem-solving—and that’s what we don’t have as a country. That’s why we don’t like math,” Chua said.
Problem-solving is not easy. Even for the multi-awarded professor, Inquirer columnist and author Chua, who teaches math at the Ateneo de Manila University, the subject was never easy.
“People say I make math easy. But math is not easy. I said math can be fun, math can be cool, but I never said it is easy. I took math in college because it was difficult,” she said.
So, how do you raise a problem-solver?
One behavior that frustrates Chua is learned helplessness. In psychology, she said, it means that “if you put a dog in a cage and you keep on shocking the dog when it tries to jump out, even if you remove the shock the dog won’t jump out anymore because it has learned to be helpless.”
In the classroom, that means students who won’t even bother trying to solve math problems.
“But that’s it—you cannot give up! Yes, algebra is harder because it is abstract. It is a difficult subject, but many teachers also don’t teach it well. Never say ‘bobo,’ or ‘You could not do it.’ Don’t be a teacher if you’re like that,” she said.
So you hate math. But what did math ever do to you? It’s not math’s fault, Chua said. It’s the fault of your teacher or parents. Many Filipinos can do basic math well, she continued. The problem lies in the transition to abstraction.
If you’re having problems with math, devote at least an hour every day to a math exercise. Just like in life, in math there are no shortcuts to solving problems. If you can’t understand Chapter 1, you can’t understand Chapter 2.
There are two kinds of math anxiety: one that is caused by a lousy teacher or parent or tutor; and one that is societal, the learned helplessness (“Namana ko sa tatay ko eh,” “We’re Filipinos. Everybody knows we’re bad at math”).
“That’s why as a country, wala tayong tiyaga! We complain about problems, but we never quantify them. We like to complain, but we don’t want to work on how to solve it because that’s problem-solving. That’s the difficult part,” Chua said.
She stressed that children should be taught with a problem-solving mindset. Expose them to concepts of money and tipping, for example. Open a savings account for them and show them the interest. Expose them to numbers early on—always with a positive attitude—and keep on telling them that this is important. Open them to the world of science.
“Don’t ever say you cannot apply math in real life,” Chua said. “You need math to figure out a tip, or a discount, or interest rates, computing your credit card bill and inflation rates.”
How big is a meter, or a kilometer? Use concrete examples so the child would understand. At gasoline stations, tell them diesel gives more kilometers per liter, so if you want to visit your grandparents in the province, you should save money for gas.
“Math is the foundation of everything we want to achieve,” Chua said. “It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to make a kid do well. Children naturally love learning. I have yet to find a child who is not curious. It’s when they start getting judged thatfear is triggered in them.”
There are three keys to problem solving.
You need to learn perseverance. This is honed through regular practice and exercises. Do not be afraid to fail. Mathematicians are used to failure; problems could take weeks to solve. American inventor Thomas Edison had a thousand failures for one success. Allow the children to fail. Let them learn how to manage failure while they are young so they grow up well-adjusted.
“Math is not a spectator sport—to be good at math, you have to get your hands dirty and actually do the problems,” Chua said.
You need to be mentally tough. Math problems are complex.
“Mental toughness is the opposite of instant gratification. The solutions take days orsometimes even weeks to get, but that is reminiscent of real life. Complex problems, such as poverty, cannot be solved quickly,” she said.
And, lastly, you’ll need some number sense. Math prowess, she said, is more about number sense than speedy computations. Chua said that when given a certain problem, for example, you may not often need the exact answer, but you need to be able to give a reasonable estimate of it.
“Once I asked a student this question: How far is your house from Ateneo? To my disappointment, her reply was: ‘It takes me 20 minutes to get to school, so maybe it is 200 kilometers?’ This one does not have much number sense,” Chua said.
In life, Chua said, we don’t always need exact answers. But in problem solving, we need to know when and if our estimates are reasonable.