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Overcoming Math Anxiety, by Sheila Tobias

- Abstract

The reasons for our widespread and embarrassing ignorance of mathematics were aptly described by Jacques Barzun in Teacher in America some 50 years ago:

Early in life, people come to think of themselves as having or not having that mysterious [mathematical] “mind,” and until recently I do not believe that anyone dared to dispute its existence. But the belief is a superstition, and one that is largely unproductive. . . . [T]he feeling is given that the whole system dropped down ready-made from the skies, to be used only by born jugglers. This is what paralyzes—with few exceptions—the infant, the adolescent, or the adult who is not a juggler himself.

Barzun elaborated his diagnosis and common-sense prescriptions in eight characteristically brisk pages, and urged us to get on with the practical tasks of teaching. My own experience of teaching mathematics suggests that he is right: there is good reason to expect success when mathematics is properly taught—at the right pace and connected with students’ other experience—and when (as one of my colleagues used to say) it is studied with the expectation of pleasure.

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