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Understanding 'mathemaphobia'

Understanding 'mathemaphobia'



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SALT LAKE CITY -- Professors at the University of Utah are preparing a brand new type of math class for this fall. The instructors' main goal is to find out why a lot of us hate math so much.

You may hear a lot of this over the summer: "Man, I hate math." "Math is my worst subject." "I'm so glad to be taking a break from it, now that it's summer."


Too many people love to loathe math. "I don't understand why that's culturally acceptable because we don't do that with [subjects like] reading." - Kelly MacArthur

However, a lot of people saying this may be the teachers. University of Utah Associate Instructor Kelly MacArthur said, "I've been in elementary classrooms where teachers, toward the end of the year, say, ‘Oh, yay, we're done with all the testing, so now we don't have to do math anymore.'"

MacArthur says even if we don't actually have anxiety from math -- which a lot of people do -- a large number of us just hate doing it. Some of us know why we hate it, while others don't.

MacArthur says one of her former students can remember her mother pulling her pigtails every time she got an answer wrong. In a case like that, it can be easy to trace where the hatred of the subject first came about.

But for others, it's not so simple. MacArthur says, in many cases, someone will be taught a concept they can't grasp, and then just convince themselves that they're stupid or just not good at mathematics. Whatever the reason, MacArthur says too many people love to loathe it.

"I don't understand why that's culturally acceptable because we don't do that with [subjects like] reading, for instance," she said.

MacArthur says she absolutely loves the subject. Then again, she knows she is abnormal. (I say that with the highest respect. Her daughter calls her "adorkable.") But, she says people don't realize how creative of a process mathematics is.

"Mathematics at its core is creative. Every mathematician is very creative. The process of proving something that hasn't been proven before is a very creative and, let me tell you, really frustrating experience," she said.

Sadly, a lot of us never get to see how creative the process is because we're taught in school that there is one procedure to arrive at a correct answer, and if you deviate from that procedure, you will be docked, even if your math is accurate. She says even future teachers loathe to teach it because they may not feel confident in their mathematical creativity.

"How can I teach the mathematics to these students?' and also, if they're going to influence hundreds and maybe thousands of students over the life of their career, how can I also help them enjoy mathematics and get over that [loathing] themselves so they don't keep it going? It's a huge domino effect."

Math 1000: Understanding Mathemaphobia, starts in the fall. MacArthur says it will involve personal journals and introspection to figure how why students feel the way they do about the topic.

E-mail: pnelson@ksl.com

Paul Nelson

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