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Trauma is a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. Many people in my home town of Christchurch still suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of our earthquakes five or so years ago. I know I will never be the same again. The trauma began with the original terrifying experience of having the ground move in a way you never thought was even possible. It was perpetuated by over eighteen months of never knowing when the next earthquake (deceptively called aftershock) would hit. And the trauma still continues for many as they struggle to sort out their homes, and jobs, and their families. (Even now the thought of earthquakes can bring me to tears, and heavy machinery undertaking drainage work happening in my street is not helping.)

People might question if the impact of bad maths experiences can really be likened to the trauma people experience as the result of a series of earthquakes. I listened recently to a webinar about maths trauma, hosted by Global Math Department, and presented by Dr Kasi Allen. Math Trauma: Healing Our Classrooms, Our Students, and Our Discipline The webinar occurred in April 2016, but thanks to the amazing global maths community, it is still available and has had over 1000 views. Dr Allen calls herself a “math activist who studies math trauma and promotes teaching mathematics for social justice”. I see myself and the work we do at Creative Maths in that vein also.

I have reproduced a few of the ideas in the webinar, but would recommend visiting it yourself to get the full value.

Dr Allen’s proposition is that what is commonly called math anxiety is probably better described as math trauma. She teaches preservice elementary school teachers. A watershed experience has been seeing people bolt from the room in tears, simply looking at the syllabus at the start of a maths course.

I am frequently told by people that they do not have a maths brain, could never learn maths, that they are not a maths person. I have had middle-aged women tell me of formative experiences that happened over fifty years previously that have shaped their relationship with mathematics. Recently I asked my Facebook friends both mathematically inclined and not so mathematically inclined about how they picture numbers. Time and again their responses included the statement that they are not good at maths.

The term “math anxiety” dates back to the 1950s and is still used today. There are decades of research into how math anxiety disproportionately affects students who are female, low income and non-white. What Dr Allen (and I) found disturbing was that among college students, undergraduate education majors are the most maths anxious, both in terms of number and severity. These are the people who are entrusted with teaching mathematics to the next generation. Primary school teachers too often have an unhealthy relationship with maths – that is NOT their fault. They were taught in a way that did not work for them and they carry the burden with them.

Dr Allen suggests that maths trauma is a more fitting description than maths anxiety. Jo Boaler talks about people as having been maths traumatised. The negative experiences people have with mathematics, are described as painful and damaging. Traumatic events can be grounded in everyday life, and do not need to come from one catastrophic event. It is the subjective response that matters. Dr Allen gives the following definition:

“Math trauma stems from an event, a series of events, or a set of circumstances experienced by an individual as harmful or threatened such that there are lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and well-being in the perceived presence of mathematics.”

Dr Allen has suggestions to help heal maths trauma. One suggestion is to acknowledge past negative experiences and their effects. We can listen and express sympathy and even apologise for the harm people have felt. We can provide opportunities for students to tell their maths stories. We can help them nurture their mathematics identities.

We also need to work on prevention of maths trauma. Classroom culture is important. Students need to feel safe and brave and they need to move. And we need to end traumatizing traditions. I have reproduced a screen shot of the slide about ending traumatizing traditions. Timed tests in mathematics have to stop. Now. Forever.

The question is, how do we (Creative Maths) help teachers to recover from maths trauma, so they can feel the fun and excitement that can be had in maths? Teachers matter for themselves, as well as for the good they can do their students. Maths educators need to be part of the solution and part of the prevention – to be maths activists. People are not born with maths trauma and it does not exist in all cultures. We need to do better.

So here is my question. Do you or someone you know suffer from maths trauma? Let me tell you now – it is not your fault. It is not their fault.

What needs to happen for you to feel better about maths? What needs to happen so that maths trauma can be eliminated from our schooling?

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## 27 Comments

[…] Please comment on the article here: Learn and Teach Statistics and Operations Research […]

I’ve been diagnosed with what amounts to numbers dyslexia, a “condition” called Dyscalculia (http://www.dyscalculia.org/). Could you comment on this?

I don’t know if I have maths trauma, but I can state that when I was in primary school I could manage: it was simple arithmetic. In my first year of secondary school everything changed and I started on a downward spiral.

Maths being a “cumulative” subject, I quickly lagged behind more and more, understood nothing, and started to collect bad marks. I was afraid, since it could have cost me entry into University. I managed to scrape through, I passed my Baccalaureate (I’m French) with no maths at all among he subjects (I was in a Humanities stream).

This was over 50 years ago. I managed to avoid maths after school, but since the 1990s I’ve tried from time to time to understand something about the subject, but in vain. Friends have tried to help me but given up saying my level was too low and they couldn’t even start to help.

Yet I might try again.

I can say truthfully that “I can’t do maths”. I’m neither proud of this, nor ashamed. It is simple fact. My level has been assessed as being comparable to a child of about 8.

I don’t think my loathing for maths can be healed. It’s a subject that makes me feel slightly sick. Cold, impenetrable, like a very thick slab of concrete. It’s kept me locked out. And I still remember the fear during my teenage years.

The idea that some people like the subject is something I find baffling.

Hi Xavie

I’m so sorry you had such a bad experience with maths. It really is a cumulative subject. One problem is that in NZ it is accepted that some people will not be able to learn some maths. However in Japan, everyone is expected to keep up and they get help if they need it. I am starting to run tuition with adults in early maths and hope that I can help some people like you.

There has to be a balance in “grouping by ability/tracking”. Obviously a “cabbage class” is not a great idea but neither is boring the bright kids into mediocrity and disinterest.

Hi – thanks for your comments. There is some interesting research around this that shows that “ability grouping” can also harm the “bright kids”. Much depends on the types of tasks employed. There is an interesting webinar on “Asset orientation” you might like to look at. http://csme.utah.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Horn-Hugo-Rossi-Lecture-2017.pdf.

Having said that, when I was teaching I had streamed groups and believed that was the best way to do it.

I can absolutely relate to this article, I was a victim of the general conviction that there are people that ‘are good in maths’ and those who are not. That’s why I tried to avoid mathematics as much as possible in high school. Much later in my Bachelor and Master, I discovered that mathematics and statistics are just a matter of exercising (and actually not as scary as commonly taught) and I discovered my passion for them! It is a pity that we don’t get this message from primary school on!

Hi Cathy

Thank you for your comments. You are so NOT alone. And unfortunately avoiding mathematics can limit opportunities later on. Well done for exercising! One of the things we emphasise to the children is that Mathematicians make mistakes and learn.

Good video on “math anxiety” here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xs9aGVUZ3YA

This statement was probably the most attention-grabbing and intriguing to me: “Timed tests in mathematics have to stop. Now. Forever.”

I have a few questions that would be great to get commentary on, if possible. My first thought was, “what does that look like?” Do you give the students a test where you give them as much time as they need, even if that’s 4 hours, when the vast majority of student should and can complete it in 2? Is that really feasible when considering the resources and time needed to facilitate that (I have cohorts of up to 500 students a year; we have very restricted access to timetabling venues that can hold that many students). I also wonder if this is, in some ways, doing a disservice to the student, as once they reach the workforce, they will have many deadlines, time pressures, need to recall information under pressure etc. For these reasons, I’m not sure this is a wise suggestion.

I should also say that (despite the preceding paragraph listing some of my reservations), I can also see the merits to this approach. I often have students come see me, and they express a sense of frustration, because they felt they knew and understood the content, but were stressed/under pressure, and didn’t feel they had enough time to complete the exam. Some of these students do well in assignments (where they have a week to complete the assignment in an open book way), but completely “bomb” in exams.

My background: I teach a first year uni maths and statistics course to students in Health fields. Also, my university has now made it *mandatory* that all final exams are at most 2 hours long, regardless of their weighting and level of content.

Hi Nikki

Sorry to take so long to answer. Some great thoughts – and thanks for reading and commenting!

When I wrote about timed tests, I was mainly meaning the high pressure timed tests on basic facts and multiplication tables, that are used in primary/elementary school. These have fluency as their aim, but research has shown that they only work towards a rather narrow view of fluency as speed, and that they harm people’s views of mathematics. But we also need to rethink exams at higher levels.

I too have taught first year uni maths and stats courses, but to students in commerce fields. For many of my students English was not their native language, so there were issues of comprehending the questions before even beginning to answer them. We endeavoured to make our tests so that just about anyone could finish them in time. I also set up a mastery learning type blended course with online testing, and the students had close to unlimited time. (The tests took between 5 minutes and an hour, and the testing sessions were two hours long).

So much about exams is so artificial, that I don’t think there is much in them that compares with “real life”. To start with your students probably use calculators, when in any office they are far more likely to use a spreadsheet or phone. Many exams are “closed book” so students have to rely on memory, whereas most people have access to the internet almost all the time, to clarify meanings, formulas etc.

Wow, I came across your blog randomly and I am so thankful to find this type of content! This is exactly what I needed. I am always anxious and keep postponing my maths related subjects (chemistry & physics) in my degree as I never felt that I was good at maths throughout primary and high school. I now try to learn a little everyday to gain my confidence.

Hi Kim

Thanks for reading and commenting. Please know that your maths anxiety is not your fault. And that there are many many people like you. I have found that adults who learn maths later pick it up well, and whatever happened in their earlier maths learning experiences can be replaced with success and enjoyment.

Good luck and just keep trying.

[…] also introduced the idea of maths trauma, that I wrote about in a previous post, and explained that preservice elementary school teachers have been found to have the highest rate […]

[…] also introduced the idea of maths trauma, that I wrote about in a previous post, and explained that preservice elementary school teachers have been found to have the highest rate […]

[…] Fluency without fear by Jo Boaler. Read this about Maths trauma. Do not add to the students’ feelings of inadequacy. One possibility if you wish to give a […]

I was never caught anything past decimals. Because I never passed pre algebra, I simply wasn’t taught any math afterwards. I’m learning disabled and never passed the required math exam to graduate high school. I’m now 34 and must take an assessment math test to enroll in college. I can’t understand anything in the free sample test they provided. All the learning resources I’ve been provided makes my anxiety spike and…I just don’t know!

Hi Christo

I’m so sorry to hear that. It is so frustrating when people get limited like that. It seems that a personal tutor would really help. Adults can learn maths well even if they had trouble as children.

[…] perceived presence of mathematics,” Kasi Allen, PhD, a math activist (yes, math activist), tells Creative Maths. This is why the dreaded timed division tests of your youth have literally scarred you […]

I can definitely relate to this and am thankful that I’ve found your site! I was told from a very young age that girls are good at English and spelling and boys are better at Math and Science. I had two strong female influences as well as countless experiences that confirmed it and It has haunted me ever since. I struggled in math to the point that I failed my grade 8 math exam and decided to take general level math courses through high school which derailed my career aspirations. At 44 years old I’m still suffering the effects of believing I was “bad at math”. I’m on a course to overcome that though and this information has confirmed my suspicions that my brain “shuts off” in the face of math (especially timed math problems) as a result of my previous learning and trauma. Coincidentally (or perhaps not), I’m a trained Emotional Freedom Techniques practitioner (EFT a.ka. Tapping) which is a technique that can help the brain recover from past trauma and unlock it for fresh learning. I’d encourage anyone hear that’s suffered from math trauma to look into EFT as a method to help the traumatized brain.

Thanks for your interest and comment. Everyone can do maths, so I hope you can find a good way to discover how much fun it can be!

Hi, Dr. Nic:

First, I know your home town of Christchurch well, as I lived there for three years — it’s where I got married, my daughter was born, I had my first home, and first dog. Last time I was there, I was stunned by the destruction.

Second, I know a great deal about “Maths Trauma,” but never knew the term. I suffered from it as a child and still do as an adult 40 years later. Because of math, I tried to kill myself as a teenager and in freshman year of university. Today, 40 years later, I can no longer do math problems at all…I see the angry red cloud of my youth, and have to hit the “Calculator” link on my computer. The only math I can do is making change — I can see the coins floating in the air, which makes life easier for cashiers at McDonald’s — and baseball.

Would you like to hear my story?

HI Kiwiwriter

That sounds really awful. I am so sorry you had to go through that. I am sure many people cannot understand how bad it is for you. IF you wanted to write your story, I would be happy to put it here on my blog to share with people.

[…] الواقع تشير الدراسات إلى أن الكثيرين يعانون من ما يسمى Math Trauma، وهي نوع من أنواع الانغلاق الذهني فيما يتعلق بالمسائل […]

I mentor a 7th grader who “hates math” but is very bright in other subjects. I told her she could have 10% of the change in my wallet if she could figure it out. We did a little math lesson on percentages first, but she seemed blocked and could only guess the answers. When I saw how she counted the money, I was in shock as she mixed up the piles of coins, asked more than once what coins were called and struggled to remember the difference between a quarter and a nickel. Toward the end of this 30 minute process she said, I give up. I said to myself, “This girl has math trauma,” not even knowing if there is such a thing. With a lot of help, she finished and got $1.09, but I could see that it was definitely not worth it for her. Not one thing about the activity was enjoyable, and certainly not fun.

Even though I think of myself as a math whiz, I recognize that I am a very poor teacher because I expect people to breeze through simple math. For example, when she asked me, “Is this a penny?” my response was, “Seriously?” I really thought she might be joking, but she was not, and it was too late. Letting that word, “seriously” slip out probably re-traumatized her to some degree. Clearly I need to work on myself before I can help her.

I want to find a way to help her heal this trauma, and also explore the systemic issues of gender, race and class around this phenomena of math trauma.

I use Internal Family Systems with adults to heal many types of trauma, and one of the processes i use is based on the belief that, “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.” The body doesn’t know the difference between real and imagined childhood experiences, so we relive these traumatic experiences using a process of witnessing the trauma, reparenting the wounded child, unburdening the old beliefs and replacing them with new beliefs.

I want to try something similar with this student and wonder where I can find guidelines for healing math trauma.

I am grateful for any help you can offer.

many thanks – Martha

Hi Martha

Lovely to hear from you. I cannot find many guidelines for healing math trauma and am myself starting to work with an adult who has maths trauma. I found this resource helpful: http://www.ascd.org/Publications/Books/Overview/Learning-to-Love-Math.aspx

[…] few people are now even suggesting that learning math can be a traumatic experience, something survived, rather than […]