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Why Do Some People Love Maths and Others Hate it?

From Robin, published on 26/05/2017 We Love Prof - UK > Academia > Maths > Explaining the Fear of Maths

According to Anne Siety, author of Who’s Afraid of Maths? Not being good at mathematics in no way signifies lower intelligence than someone who is.

Really? Many might have thought otherwise…

When you don’t like maths, you can have trouble getting down to work on it, experience resistance, and have a hard time staying motivated.

Sometimes aversion even cedes to pain, to the point where the idea of a test can lead to headaches, vomiting and abdominal pain.

At the other end of the spectrum, lovers of equivalent fractions, Pythagorean theorem and number theory rejoice at the prospect of solving new maths questions and the challenges they bring. The latter are stimulated by, and even experience pleasure in, confronting maths problems.

What differentiates one type of person from the other?

Why do some people love maths, while others loathe it? Let’s take a closer look to find out.


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Aversion to Maths: is School to Blame?

Maths lovers are the first to admit that the traditional scholastic method of learning maths is not the most sexy.

Most maths courses progress following the model of discovery, explanation of a rule, and training. Largely disconnected from the “real world”, this approach fails to engage the attention of students who would benefit from another approach: One more practical and vibrant.

On the face of it, maths often appears boring, consisting of completing textbook exercises and worksheets and doing homework with no other aim than to progress to the next chapter, in order to advance in the maths curriculum.

At school, we all too often associate ability in maths with intelligence. It is also a characteristic which schools (still) consider to be a selection criterion.

The delineation between “good” and “bad” students is also a deeply entrenched part of the traditional school thinking. As a result, learners who lag behind feel frustration, often turning into shame, and labour under the misapprehension that they are less intelligent.

Stop banging your head against a wall and get help with maths! Face your fear of maths head on! (Source: Superprof.fr)

Who among you, dear readers, has not experienced going into a cold sweat when called upon to give an answer to multiplication and division problems or long division on the board? When asked to solve an algebraic problem or recount your times tables in front of 28 pairs of eyes?

The psychology of a fear of maths starts early on, mathematics depending on cumulative knowledge in which each chapter must be understood and mastered in order to proceed to the next.

In short, if you ignore the foundations then you won’t be able to build the tower.

One must act as early as possible to avoid the risk of coming undone and having a challenging school career, which will influence one’s choice of subjects, college and higher education.

All in the Mind? Why Some People Love Maths

There have always been some who are gifted at maths, and others who struggle.

What, then, is this mysterious quality that makes some seem to possess remarkable abilities.

Those who are undaunted by unknown variables often claim that they have never had difficulty with maths, and were passionate about numbers from an early age.

According to Florian, a doctor in mathematics, it all starts with those first puzzles at primary school: “If Peter has 10 marbles and he loses 3…”.

At university, he discovered what he calls “wonderful subjects,” real proofs, and more.

To this day, he continues to delve ever deeper into mathematics with a sense of wonder. What exactly makes him, and people like him, different?

To be proficient at maths, you need the ability to synthesise information, a sense of intuition and, to many people’s surprise, creativity.

Certain people are maths naturals, others need help to advance. Maths seems to come naturally to some and leaves other befuddled (source: Superprof.fr).

Was Einstein not a great daydreamer?

We cannot simply say that all mathematicians are more “left brain” – after the hemisphere which is known as the seat of reason and analysis – as they use in equal measure the right side of the brain, often described as the centre for creativity and emotions.

In reality, the two hemispheres of the brain work side by side: If the left side deals with the step by step manipulation of data, the right side is more concerned with simultaneity and overview. It would be more accurate to say, therefore, that we make full use of both sides of our brain, whether in maths or otherwise.

Why Does Maths Hurt Students Who Don’t Like it?

A study published by the University of Chicago in 2011 revealed that physical pain can result from the active anticipation of an exercise. In other words, thinking about stressful situations activates the area of the brain associated with pain.

Uplifting, right?

Similarly, fear of mathematics is also related to emotions.

Maths can be terrifying! Maths exams fill some people with dread! (source: Craig Sunter, Flicker).

In fact, though you might not think it, maths is connected to painful emotions that can paralyse a student, rendering him immobile in the face of a challenging math problem. Behind a square root can hide questions surrounding his place in the family; behind a quadratic equation, unspoken worries can play hide and seek.

Similarly, trauma experienced in class, like the petrifying shame of one struggling to complete a numerical problem on the board in front of all her classmates, or the chiding of a teacher who doesn’t understand how the student can possibly not grasp given maths concepts, can leave an indelible mark.

An aversion to mathematics can result in failure in the topic, with the symptoms and consequences we have explored.

Why do People Hate Maths?

Mathematics is a discipline that requires effort, regular practice, training and memory.

Some people, capable of applying themselves in other subjects, are paralysed by their own doing when it comes to maths, preventing normal learning progress.

Cognitive blockages related to maths are often linked to painful memories of specific maths teachers. Contemptuous, strict, unsmiling, cold: Some of the descriptions which crop up time and again in the testimonies of wounded students. I bet you have a certain maths teacher from your school days in mind as you read this…

Some eminent researchers have even said that there is no maths without tears: As many shed for difficulties endured as for the joy of discovery.

Since maths is an abstract discipline embodied by the teacher, in shutting yourself off to the educator you shut yourself off to maths.

It is therefore important not to let a phobia or relational problem take hold. Parents should take the time to discuss such issues with their child’s school, put in place a system of support at home, as well as outside, if needs be, with the help of a child psychologist.

How Can You Help a Child who is Afraid of Maths?

Sometimes, private tutoring not the magic bullet needed to resolve a psychological blockage in maths, and it is necessary to seek a psychologist’s help regarding a child’s problems. Anne Siety has proposed a categorisation of errors that speaks volumes about the relationship of children to mathematics:

Young students of maths can really benefit from alternative teaching approaches. How can you help children who are stuck with maths? (Source: Superprof.fr)

  1. Symbolic errors related to the child’s line of questioning and character;
  2. Inconsequential or small errors;
  3. Errors of progression: Successfully learning a new rule while forgetting the preceding one;
  4. Poetic errors: Word confusion of that leads from abscissa to abyss.

The role of parents is crucial in helping the child regain self-confidence in her abilities.

Even someone who seems to be mathematically useless can reach a very respectable level once maths blockages have been shown the door, and can then follow a mathematical route like a scientific A-level, or veterinary school, for example.

Some tricks to get back on the right footing with maths include:

  • Always value and emphasise the areas of success;
  • Highlight the student’s attempts to succeed;
  • Never punish by pinning failure on a lack of work or studiousness;
  • Listen to fears and worries;
  • Make learning maths a game with puzzles, quizzes, fun questions and flash cards. And yes, it is possible to learn maths while having fun!

To the question “Why does maths appeal to some and terrify others?”, There are a number of answers.

Firstly, there is the question of natural aptitude: The basic ability to learn mathematics; the capacity for abstraction and reasoning.

Secondly, it can involve some trauma experienced during maths studies in the first years of school, methods that poorly meet the cognitive predispositions of certain children (for example daydreamers or hyperactive kids).

In any case, the most important thing is to know how to identify difficulties in maths as soon as possible in order to implement relevant solutions, from a one-off psychological consultation to overcome blockages, to the private lessons offered by a Superprof!

The role of maths tutors and different teaching methods counts for much in a student’s love of, or loathing for, mathematics.


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