Parents, before you can help your kid with math, you have to get over your math anxiety

Coronavirus lockdowns + home schooling + innumerate parents = math anxiety.
Coronavirus lockdowns + home schooling + innumerate parents = math anxiety.
Image: REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson
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There is a long list of things that parents are struggling with in lockdown, including trying to work while learning, on the fly, how to teach. And one of the hardest things for parents to teach is math.

The US and the UK are not very numerate nations. In the UK, more than half the adult population operates at or below the math level of an 11-year-old. In 2019, National Numeracy, a UK nonprofit, teamed up with researchers at the Policy Institute at King’s College London to survey 2,000 Brits on five math questions related to everyday life, such as “If a scarf costs £11.70 after a 10% reduction, what was the original price?” The researchers determined that answering four correctly meant a workable level of numeracy. Only 20% hit that threshold; 6% got all the questions right.

Americans are not much better. The Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies is a test given to around 150,000 16- to 65-year-olds in 24 developed countries around the world. It is meant to gauge what skills adults need to function in a knowledge-based economy, both at work and in life, and tests three areas: literacy, numeracy, and digital problem-solving. In numeracy, US adults scored significantly below the average, putting them behind Cyprus, Poland, Estonia, and the Slovak Republic for an 18th-place finish.

Research from Sian Beilock, the president of Barnard College, shows that the root of bad math skills in the US is math anxiety, which leads to math avoidance. This is profound: Americans aren’t bad at math—they have given up on math, and hence, are bad at math.

“As anyone who has played an instrument, participated in athletics, or tried to master any nature of new task can tell you, failure to practice, or to spend time working on getting better at a thing, tends to produce less-than-stellar results when it comes to developing any type of skill,” Beilock wrote in Quartz in February (Quartz member exclusive). Other research by Beilock, and University of Chicago psychological scientist Susan Levine, showed that math anxiety is contagious. They found the children of math-anxious parents learned less math over the school year and were more likely to be math-anxious themselves. The caveat? The kids were only more anxious when the anxious parents provided frequent help on the child’s math homework.

The key in lockdown, math groups in the UK and US say, is not so much superior fraction skills as making sure parents don’t transmit nonstop math anxiety to kids. Mike Ellicock, one of the founders of National Numeracy, says mindset matters more than skills when it comes to figuring how how to build a more numerate nation.

“It’s not actually the skills that is the challenge,” he says. “For most people, their residual memory of math education is ‘I can’t do it.'” He adds, “We have an attitudinal and psychological barrier, so they don’t engage in numbers and systems because it’s uncomfortable, and it puts them in a bad place.”

Most parents are not math teachers and should not be expected to know how to teach things they do not know. “There’s no way parents can replicate what’s happening in school unless they happen to be educators, and it’s not fair to expect them to,” says Lynne McClure, a trustee of the group and director of Cambridge Mathematics, a nonprofit that is building digital tools to hep improve math curricula. What they can do, she said, is emphasize how important math is in real life, and it’s utility for life and for work. “The worst thing is when parents say ‘I was never any good at maths,'” she says.

Getting through the coronavirus lockdowns does not mean mastering calculus, but having parents model a growth mindset toward math. That means never saying “I am terrible at math,” but rather, showing how important math is, and how capable anyone is of learning it—a fact that has been well established with research.

Trying to change things

Ellicock served in the British Parachute Regiment in Sierra Leone and Iraq before getting an MBA and working in the finance industry. But his interest in numeracy grew when his mother-in-law embarked on a project to understand why kids struggled with math. She found the subject moved from the physical to the abstract too quickly. She developed Numicon, a set of plastic number grids to help kids visualize the maths they were doing. “It was a quirk that became a business,” Ellicock says. As part of a Labour government initiative called Every Child Counts, kids in Leeds used Numicon for 12 weeks, and made 20 months of progress.

Ellicock ran the business from 2008 to 2010 before selling it to Oxford University Press. He then decided to focus on numeracy as a national crisis, not an educational issue. “If we can make such a step change in a short time for kids, we can we do something equivalent for adults,” he said.

In 2014, National Numeracy launched a sort of military fitness test for math called the National Numeracy Challenge, a way for people to assess their mathematical fitness and provide resources to help where there were weaknesses. In March, it revamped that challenge, making it shorter—10-15 minutes—while still linking to resources, but also adding videos and learning resources about the importance of a mathematical mindset, reminders of how common math anxiety is, and the dangers of telling your kids you are “not a math person.”

From the military, Ellicock learned that preparation and practice build resilience. “You get a real mix of young men, and you put them through intensive training, and you produce something resilient and ready for everything,” he says. Math, he argues, is no different: Build a mindset of practice, and fitness, and people will build resilience.

The UK’s education department recently launched a toolkit for families. Ellicock found it maddening—more of the same skills without any acknowledgement that many parents would not engage with it because they are terrified of numbers. It answers the wrong exam question, he said. “The real exam question is, ‘How do we get people who do not want to engage with math to engage?'”

Getting people to care, he said, requires understanding why it has value, shifting mindsets from “I can’t” to “I’ll try,” and recognizing that it is effort and not ability that will make a person numerate. “There’s no math gene,” he said. “It’s about effort.”

There are initiatives to build better mindsets and skills in the US, too. Laura Overdeck, who has a degree in astrophysics and an MBA, built Bedtime Math, which now includes books, an app, and a foundation weaving math into stories, with varying levels of difficulty for different ages. “You never hear people say, ‘I’m just not good at reading. I just can’t do that.’ But it’s perfectly acceptable to say, ‘I’m not good at math,'” she said in a TedX talk.

Deborah Stipek, a professor at Stanford and the former dean of the school of education, promotes the teaching of math in preschool through Development and Research in Early Math Education.

“It’s intuitive you need to learn to read; even for math, you need to be able to read word problems,” Stipek says. “It’s not intuitive that math lays a foundation for learning.” But it does: Research from the National Research Council underscores the importance of early mathematical thinking for developing cognitive abilities later in life.

Covid-19 and the future

Covid-19 led to a mass experiment in home schooling, offering an unwelcome reminder to many parents that they are not exactly math geniuses. Many parents are staying up late to shore up on fractions on Khan Academy while plenty of others have given up. When Osmo, an educational STEAM company, asked parents amid the coronavirus crisis what subjects they felt they would fail if they had to take a child’s course today, math topped the list.

Ellicock suggests a strategy of the three Ps: “Be positive about maths, point out the maths in everyday life, and praise effort, not talent.”

Parents may well decide to punt on home-schooling during the lockdowns and hope that kids catch up in math after the crisis has subsided. But that’s not a great long-term strategy, either, Ellicock says. Kids spend 25% of time in school, and 75% out of school. It’s a lot of time. And research shows the number one influence on primary school-aged kids is their caregivers. Kids can figure out the math if they think it’s relevant—but if parents say math is boring or impossible, they may well give up before trying.

“We should give parents the confidence to think they don’t have to know anything, but to work with the child, and model working stuff out,” Ellicock says.

As economies everywhere crater due to the pandemic, and unemployment surges, math skills will be more required than ever. This means getting past “I can’t” to figuring out how to get to “I can.” As the Wall Street Journal points out, unemployment jumped most for Americans with lower levels of education: The rate for high school dropouts soared to 21.2% in April from 6.8% in March compared to a rise from 8.4% for those with a college degree, from 2.5% in March.

“We won’t make our way out of the crisis with geographers and ancient historians,” McClure said. “We need mathematicians and people who are in the STEM sector.”