Three things your Maths students should not be afraid of

For many students, Maths is not fun, it’s fright !

That is not necessarily what they will show in the classroom. When students experience difficulty in Maths, they might appear bored, annoyed, rebellious, ironic, puzzled, defiant, etc. but not afraid, because they are proud.

It’s adults that tell you how frightening the experience was when they were kids. Adults are not in the classroom anymore, they can let the fright out and even laugh about it.

But where does this ‘Maths fright’ really come from ?

The main origin of the Maths fright is a recurring sense of failure.

It is quite understandable: when something does not work for you, when you bang your head on the wall every time you try, you get this sense of failure and you give up eventually.

So, here you are: as a Maths teacher, you have to put yourself in your students’ shoes; which means fully understanding that, for a majority of them, the association between Maths and fear of failing can be very strong.


Key message n°1: do not be afraid of making mistakes

The recurring sense of failure comes from several misconceptions students have about making mistakes. Therefore, your first goal as a Maths teacher is to root out these misconceptions and install a positive culture of errors in the classroom.

Students think that making mistakes is wrong. More precisely, they think that if they make mistakes, THEY are wrong. Therefore, your first act of communication to students should be to ‘separate’ the mistake from the person, as it were, by delivering key messages such as:

  • do not be afraid to make mistakes
  • you will never be criticized for giving a wrong answer
  • we all make mistakes, we all learn from our mistakes

This can also be supported by a logical explanation. ‘Wrong’ means ‘not right YET’ because:

  • If you get it wrong, it means you’re trying
  • If you’re trying, then you are already learning actively
  • If you’re actively learning, then you WILL get it RIGHT

However, for this to be convincing, you also need to explain HOW you will help them. Learning from one’s own mistakes should not be perceived as a lonely process. From day 1, you must tell them that their difficulties will not be left unattended, that you will help them if they are stuck, re-explain things if necessary, or get someone else to help.

There again, it’s totally understandable: being asked to learn from one’s own mistakes may sound a bit steep and philosophical to some students, so in order to make it acceptable you have to convey that you will be there by their side and you won’t let them down.

That is how a positive culture of errors can become a profitable contract:

  • if you’re making mistakes, that means you’re trying
  • If you’re trying I will help you.
  • Then, if you follow my guidance and keep trying, I assure you that you will get there in the end.

In other words:

  • it is normal to make mistakes, it is normal not to understand things right away
  • there is no problem with that as long as you don’t give up
  • you are not alone: if you don’t give up, you will receive help
  • and if you don’t give up, you will achieve much more than you think…

FailureThis sets the question of success and achievement in the right perspective. The combination of success and publicity is so overwhelming in today’s world that students are often confused and awe-struck. They know they are expected to succeed, but the how-to is less clear. This is the right time to show that making mistakes is an essential part of the how-to, which can be illustrated by the experience of very successful people.

Depending on how you ‘feel’ your class, you can also have an open discussion about this matter: who is sometimes afraid of making mistakes in Maths ? Who sometimes has the feeling that you will never understand ? Who sometimes gives up ? Who thinks: I have already tried and it doesn’t work for me, so let’s give up ?

Do not fear

If you are really at ease with the class, if you feel the confidence and trust is already there, you can also perform a very intriguing ceremony to help them get rid of this fear once and for all (more about this in a future post…).


Key message n°2: do not be afraid to ask questions

Being afraid to ask questions is the second most common fear.

Here again, the key message should make clear to students that, not only are they not alone, but they are actually part of a learning community:

  • don’t be afraid of asking questions , don’t be afraid of saying ‘I don’t get it’
  • If you have a question, it’s very likely that someone else also has the same question, so your question will benefit the whole class
  • I may not always be able to re-explain things immediately, but yes we’ll find a moment together or someone else will come and help you out.


Key message n°3: do not be afraid of numbers

Number don’t bite, even big numbers! So you needn’t be afraid of them.

When learning a new skill, it can occasionally be useful to add a few examples or exercises with strange or impressive numbers. Here are a few examples:

  • When studying divisibility tests, use a pack of cards numbered from 1 to 9, ask 3 students to pick a card: each card will be the digit of a number. Write the number: can this number be divided by 6 ? Then build up to 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 digits, etc. in an Art Benjamin style stage act
  • When learning to solve simple equations: throw in a few unexpected numbers, like π or √3, or -375794, etc.

If you do this, not only will they be less frightened by numbers, but this will also develop their sense of abstraction and generalization.

Communicating to students about these 3 fears is important for other reasons… If you address these problems upfront, you are not only helping them to approach Maths in a more efficient way. You are also setting a truly sound attainment culture in your class by demonstrating that success is more about overcoming than achieving.

Overcoming these fears is something you can narrate to students as they get braver, it is something you can give parents a positive phone call about, regardless of a student’s ability or academic achievement. By encouraging them not to be afraid, you are not only setting students on the right track for their Maths practice. By this demonstration of generosity and confidence, you are not only shattering their lurking sense of failure: you are also, and more importantly, opening up a whole new way of succeeding, far from the pressures of the dominant and shallow culture of short-term success that is constantly inflicted upon them.

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