About Julian

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I teach math to kids. They teach me a lot of things, too. I think it's an even swap.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Math Anxiety - Blame me

For most of my career I have pushed back - gloriously unsuccessfully - against the onslaught of standardized testing.  From the time Americans start learning addition, they are subjected to timed tests. Having myself been a parent of second- and third-graders forced to complete hundreds of addition and multiplication facts in five-minute increments, I have been a first-hand witness and, if I really want to be truthful, a perpetrator of the stress-induced onset of math anxiety.  My kids seemed to have survived this traumatic period in their lives, but there is considerable research that shows these timed tests are the beginning of the "I just can't do math," mindset that so many people in this country suffer from.

Jo Boaler wrote in an Education Week article last July how stress-inducing time tests have a physiological response on the brain and that kids as young as five years old show signs of math-related stress.  She writes
. . .and the level of interest in the subject is at an all-time low. This is a result, in part, of schools in the United States heading down a fast-moving track in which the purpose of math has been reduced to the ranking of children and their schools. Math has become a performance subject. Children of all ages are more likely to tell you that the reason for learning math is to show whether they “get it” instead of whether they appreciate the beauty of the subject or the way it piques their interest.
More and more we are applying a corporate model to education where everything except student satisfaction in their learning is quantified.  It is as if we have come to believe that students improve by assessing and ranking them, rather than through the actual instruction.

Number of external standardized tests students in my high school take in their four years: 25 - 30
Number of external standardized tests students in Finnish high schools take in their four years: 2

Finland, which is regularly touted as one of the best, if not the best school system in the country, has gone the opposite direction from the U.S.  And the few tests students do take (with the exception of their summative test at the end of high school) are low-stakes tests used for teacher professional development and a means to measure student growth, but not teacher nor school accountability.

In Finland, only 7% of students state they feel math anxiety.  In the United States, the number is greater than 50%.  While there are many, many reasons the Finnish school system is more successful than the US system, and I encourage people interested in delving into those reasons further read Finnish Lessons by Pasi Sahlberg to better understand those reasons, certainly the obsession on testing in the U.S. is inconsistent with the successful approach employed in Finland.

I want to teach in a way that students "appreciate the beauty of the subject," but I so often feel I am employed by a test-prep center, knowing that I am doing harm to my students' long-term appreciation of the subject I love.

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