Recent research reveals the large role that emotion plays in learning. In the realm of math learning, the level of math anxiety strongly affects the student’s ability to achieve to their full potential. Unfortunately, students who suffer from math learning disabilities are very likely to have anxiety surrounding math class, which exacerbates their learning issues. Math anxiety reduces working memory capacity, a system in the brain that is crucial to math achievement. In fact, math anxiety interferes with math learning to the extent that students who do not suffer from a learning challenge may present as having learning issues in math class. MathAffect combines strategies designed to reduce math anxiety with math content remediation to effect positive change for the long term. We also work with math concepts that may not have been learned well enough in earlier grades. Since the initial age of math anxiety onset is around fourth grade, targeting elementary schools with math anxiety reduction strategies is most effective. As children mature, they are more able to use metacognitive strategies to understand their own math anxiety, and one-on-one services become particularly effective. MathAffect offers individual student services as well as professional development programming to reduce math anxiety and increase math learning.
Intervention must be three-pronged to eliminate math anxiety from our classrooms. First, as over 90% of elementary school teachers model math anxious behavior, which is then imitated by children, elementary school teachers must receive math anxiety reduction therapy and be trained in effective math curricula. Second, since innovative math curricula are ineffective with classrooms full of anxious students, anxiety reduction techniques must be employed to reduce current anxiety levels. Anxiety reduction strategies, in combination with math content remediation, are most effective in one-on-one settings. In classrooms where math anxiety has not yet taken root, prevention strategies must be employed. Third, innovative curricula must be implemented as anxiety levels decrease.
I have written a handbook on math anxiety to educate teachers and administrators about why and how such an intervention is necessary, as well as to provide a source of reference material to support a professional development program surrounding the issue of math anxiety. “The Affect Effect” will be available for purchase online in 2011. Further research is needed to determine how best to create curricula that replace anxiety with more positive emotions, as well as around how to implement the new programs without creating new anxieties. The field of Mind, Brain, and Education is perfectly positioned to fill that need. MathAffect’s services are based on an understanding of how brain development can and should affect math education. We offer individual services, professional development services, and customized curricula, all designed to reduce math anxiety and increase math learning.
As a math teacher in a school which advocates teaching a development-based curriculum, I have long been interested in how children’s developmental stage affects learning, as well as how learning can support healthy brain development. During my tenure as a math teacher, I became aware of the strong role that emotion plays in learning. My students simply learn better when emotion is incorporated into the lesson, whether it is through a lesson taught by telling a story, playing a game, or simply through encouraging students that they were good at math. I also noticed a lower level of anxiety in my classrooms than in others, and I began wondering if there was a connection between the use of positive emotion in the classroom and a lower presence of anxiety. I also wondered if achievement level could be connected to affect, whether positive or negative. I joined the Mind, Brain, and Education Master’s program at Harvard Graduate School of Education in order to learn about what was already known about math learning, as well as to research the validity of my own observations on how my students learn best.
The Mind, Brain, and Education field has a great deal to offer in helping all educators understand what is going on in their classrooms and in their students’ brains to help us create an optimal learning environment for our children. Research by Immordino-Yang and Damasio (2007) shows that emotion plays a critical role in helping students apply the knowledge they learn in school to inform real-world decision making in social contexts throughout their lives. Therefore, educators have a moral imperative to create a positive learning environment. After all, the point of education is to help children achieve a higher quality of life as adults, not just to perform well on the end-of-year standardized test. I therefore began by looking for research that examined the role of emotion in math learning.
A survey of math research literature showed two contradictory findings: first, that having a positive attitude towards math was not strongly related to higher achievement in math (Ma & Kishor, 1997), and second, that having anxiety about math is strongly related to lower achievement in math (Ma, 1999). In other words, positive emotion wasn’t found to be that important, but negative emotion was. If the key to optimal math learning is the absence of negative emotion, the implication is that positive emotion must be present. After all, it isn’t possible to truly divorce learning from any emotions whatsoever. If we teach students to minimize their emotions, we teach them skills that do not transfer to the real world (Immordino-Yang & Damasio, 2007). Moreover, shared positive emotions can reduce anxiety and create feelings of contentment and collaboration, while shared negative emotions trigger survival mechanisms, flooding the body with adrenaline, so that all prior learning stops (Butterfield, Martin, & Prairie, 2003). Clearly, there is a logical inconsistency in how we have approached research on math achievement and the role of emotion in learning.
According to Damasio (1999), the purpose of emotion is to maintain homeostasis. Therefore, all emotions have some kind of regulatory role to play, resulting in an evolutionary advantage to the organism exhibiting the emotion. We learn to seek experiences that create pleasure, and we learn to avoid experiences that give us pain. Emotions result in profound changes to the state of the body, including the brain. Small wonder, then, that math anxious people exhibit difficulty learning math, and rather than learning the lesson on the blackboard, they learn to avoid math. Math anxiety is clearly a negative emotion. If, as Immordino-Yang and Damasio (2007) demonstrate, it is not possible to remove emotion from learning, we need to characterize what would constitute an optimal learning environment for math, one that, presumably, would engage positive emotions.
Mihalyi Czikszenkmihalyi (1991) describes an optimal learning experience as one in which one’s skills are adequate to the challenge, in a goal-directed, rule-bound action system with clear feedback on how well one is doing at any given time. In such a learning environment, students can achieve “flow,” where concentration is so complete that there is no space left for worries or irrelevant thoughts. As it stands now, by interfering with concentration, math anxiety prevents students from ever achieving flow. We need to design learning environments where flow is the norm, leaving no room for anxious thoughts. An environment designed to promote flow will create a positive emotional climate where learning is its own reward, as affect is the most powerful predictor of student motivation (Schweinle, Meyer, & Turner, 2006). After all, while math anxiety reduction is crucial to math learning, that is not enough. We need to recruit emotion to support cognition. The aspects of cognition that our school model emphasizes are learning, attention, memory, decision making, motivation, and social functioning. All are affected by and subsumed within the processes of emotion (Immordino-Yang & Damasio, 2007). According to Czikszenkmihalyi (1991; p. 78), one “society is ‘better’ than another if a greater number of its people have access to experiences that are in line with their goals.” Surely, then, our imperative as educators is to provide all students with a learning environment that optimizes their chances for success.
As long as math anxiety persists in our schools, we are denying children access to a good math education. It is therefore important to research all aspects of math anxiety. We need to determine the causes and prevalence of math anxiety, the mechanism by which it hinders learning, and propose strategies to remediate it. A final step is to create learning environments where math anxiety is unlikely to develop in the first place, which will necessitate not only a change in teaching strategies but also cultural change in schools. My goal has been twofold: first, to generate an informative booklet that teachers can use to understand math anxiety, and second, to generate a list of areas to direct my future research. I believe that understanding how different factors in a math class affect brain development is key to effecting change in the classroom. In my experience, if teachers know about a problem, understand the cause of it, the effect it has on the children, and most importantly, what they can do about it, they will do their best to incorporate the solution into their teaching. “The Affect Effect” is therefore designed for teachers, though learning specialists and parents may also find it interesting and useful.
Current research shows that over 90% of elementary teachers are math anxious (Gresham, 2008; Jackson & Leffingwell, 1999), the first major onset age is in fourth grade (Ma, 1999; Hembree, 1990), and that a primary cause of math anxiety is through teacher modeling (Gresham, 2007). We also know that the mechanism by which math anxiety decreases math achievement is through interference with working memory. Worrying about math takes up valuable space in the phonological loop, which is crucial to math learning. The interaction artificially decreases math achievement regardless of natural ability (Ashcraft, 2002). We know that systematic desensitization and anxiety management techniques are effective at decreasing math anxiety and increasing the level of math achievement (Ma, 1999; Hembree, 1990). I have written about all of this at length in my handbook, “The Affect Effect.”
Knowledge is not enough to create instructional change. If nothing is done to influence people’s metacognitive awareness and control over the new information, the new behavior will disappear once the instructional context is gone (Kuhn, 2000). It isn’t enough to give teachers new strategies. In the absence of continual reinforcement, they will revert to their previous teaching methodology, with which they are already comfortable at a metacognitive level. In order to create true change, we need to create a social context where teachers can discuss, question, criticize, and adapt the new knowledge to gain control over the new information at a metacognitive level (Kuhn, 2000). With this in mind, creating a professional development program that encourages teachers to become a community of learners is likely to be more effective than simple dissemination of information.
I believe that a professional development program based on active discussion of math anxiety research will change math teaching strategies. I also believe that using the teaching strategies laid out in “The Affect Effect” will prevent or minimize math anxiety in the classroom. At the end of the booklet I propose that a classroom designed to produce flow may prevent math anxiety. I also propose that using instructional strategies that capitalize on positive affect, such as storytelling and games, may prevent math anxiety. At MathAffect, we are constantly putting these strategies to the test, working on decreasing math anxiety while simultaneously increasing math skills. Working with both emotion and cognition forms the basis of MathAffect’s ongoing research. After all, out of the “processes that form the interface between cognition and emotion, emerge the origins of creativity – the artistic, scientific, and technological innovations that are unique to our species” (Immordino-Yang & Damasio, 2007; p.7).
Ashcraft, M. (2002). Math Anxiety: Personal, Educational, and Cognitive Consequences. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11(5), 181-185.
Butterfield, P.M., Martin, C.A, & Prairie, A.P. (2003). Relationships are emotional connections. In Emotional connections: How relationships guide early learning (pp.44-64). Washington, DC: Zero to Three Press.
Csikzentmihalyi, M. (1991). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Chapter 4. New York: Harper Perennial.
Damasio, A.R. (1999). The feeling of what happens. Chapter 2: Emotion and feeling (pp. 35-81). New York: Harcourt Brace.
Gresham, G. (2008). Mathematics anxiety and mathematics teacher efficacy in elementary pre-service teachers. Teaching Education, 19(3), 171-184.
Gresham, G. (2007). A study of mathematics anxiety in pre-service teachers. Early Childhood Education Journal, 35(2), 181-188.
Hembree, R. (1990). The Nature, Effects, and Relief of Mathematics Anxiety. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 21(1), 33-46.
Immordino-Yang, M. H., & Damasio, A. (2007). We feel, therefore we learn: The relevance of affective and social neuroscience to education. Mind, Brain, and Education, 1(1), 3-10.
Jackson, C., & Leffingwell, R. (1999). The role of instructors in creating math anxiety in students from kindergarten through college. Mathematics Teacher 92(7), 583-586.
Kuhn, D. (2000). Metacognitive development. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9(5), 178-181.
Ma, X. (1999). A meta-analysis of the relationship between anxiety toward mathematics and achievement in mathematics. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 30(5), 520-540.
Ma, X., & Kishor, N. (1997). Assessing the relationship between attitude toward mathematics and achievement in mathematics: a meta-analysis. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 2826-47.
Schweinle, A., Meyer, D., & Turner, J. (2006). Striking the right balance: students’ motivation and affect in elementary mathematics. The Journal of Educational Research, 99(5), 271-290.