WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: Math anxiety

 

Now, earlier last week, in preparation for a situationer on tertiary education requested by the 23rd Buklod Atenista Leaders' Summit, a colloquium of student councils in the five Ateneo campuses, I was neck deep in figures on comparative performance figures of Filipino students in math, science and English. The math situation was especially disquieting.

 

 Consider that in the High School Readiness Test administered in 2004, less than 8,000 of 1.2M takers answered 75% or more of the test items correctly. Lowering the passing score at 25% acknowledges that on the average, our elementary school graduates were performing at a competency level of Grade IV!  Don't ask me how we compare against other nations. I'm sure you've heard the horror stories, too. A couple of weeks back, Gina had sought me out to bounce strategies for mediating readiness for college math. ADDU has been running a summer precollegiate bridging program for freshman applicants who score below the entrance exam cut-off but signify a willingness to enter college on academic probation. We talked about factoring in the students' early math experience, teaching focus on each step of the procedures, and articulating corrections to erroneous understanding. We agreed to sit down on this at a future date and really worry the problem, and so I had been giving this a lot of thought. You see, I recognize that math is important in understanding the nature of the world. It is the language of the sciences, and so if the numbers do not make sense to you, the laws of cause and effect in nature will pass you by. You'll be reduced to viewing individual presentations of the same phenomenon or getting by regurgitating undigested information through rote repetition of something someone said. You'll be nothing more than an overeducated parrot. And it wouldn't spell flying colors either for your performance on tests of competence.  Anyway, the data I was able to get seem to indicate that the competency of the average Filipino student is static at Grade IV. Like, he gets to college, but is only able to do the fundamental operations on whole numbers. I ran that observation by Dr. Marleone Bauyot who has a lot more data on math performance of Filipino students and he concurs with the observation. In other words, it seems like the Filipino child cannot get past Piaget's concrete operational stage when dealing with numbers.  More and more, I'm beginning to suspect that the culprit here is preschool math. You see, math is an abstract subject which requires symbolic mental representation. Try the number 100, for example. Unless you count it, you don't really know if you got a hundred or not. You have to believe it is indeed 100 before you can proceed to do anything with it.  Piaget was quite clear that unless the child is able to grasp the idea of number as a physical property, he would not be able to perform the fundamental operations as yet. And that is why elementary math is taught beginning 7 years of age when developmental psychologists believe he becomes able to appreciate the immutable physical properties of objects.  However, given our population situation and the push for dual income households, a market has been opened for daycare needs of preschool children. The better preschools flaunt a curriculum which purports to provide the child with readiness for the formal classroom. Somebody has yet to examine how well this curriculum meets the preschools' assumption that future school success is aided by this type of early intervention.  Readiness for formal education is measured along five dimensions: Physical health and motor development, social and emotional development, attitude toward learning, language development, and cognition and knowledge.  Preschool children, ages 3 to 6, are not little adults. But come by any preschool to see that development along these five dimensions are enhanced using normative modules that require formal classroom situations and standard tests designed to measure learning outcomes on institutionally generated learning objectives. It totally disregards the individual variations for which little minds are known. In preschool math, enhancing cognition and knowledge involves introducing the child to the number concept and requiring him to perform operations — adding doubles, skip counting, addition facts to 10, subtraction facts to 10, and identifying place value.  Preschools that do this make the preoperational child perform at a level higher than he is developmentally able to do. What is developmentally appropriate is to make the child perform something challenging that he can actually do. But to make him perform at a level that he is incapable of is like asking an egg to fly.  Because most of them are still unable to grasp that number is a physical property, the preschoolers resort to rote memory in order to be able to answer the assessment tests given after the lessons in the time given. Yes, speed at giving the correct answer is encouraged in many preschool classrooms. This early introduction to having to execute something like circus performance does more harm than good in the long run for two reasons:  First, the child does not understand the logic, and continued reliance on rote repetition will not allow him flexibility in carrying out similar tasks in novel situations. When students memorize without understanding, they are not sure when or how to use what they know. Second, it generates anxiety associated with numbers and with situations when he has to deal with them, and this phobia is something they carry to future experiences with numbers. In that sense, preschool math is counterproductive to the very ends it seeks, that of imbuing in the student the knowledge and confidence that would assure his school success.  It is very hard to undo the harm done. Several researches have shown that when children memorize mathematical procedures without really understanding, it is almost impossible to go back later and build understanding. The habits of thought set by early experience would get in the way. This is what designers of mediation programs should come to terms with.  This is not to say that math should not be taught in preschool. My suggestion is to do away with the formal classroom set up and introduce the number concept through play, songs, rhymes, and materials pupils can manipulate. They have to see it, until they could believe that numbers as a property remain the same all the time. Only then could they be ready to mentally picture it. Preschools should hold out making kids do operations — no skip counting, no place values, no addition of doubles — unless the child discovers for himself that these could be done. Trust his innate curiosity and ability to generate his questions from his own exploration of the world. Introducing the child the externally generated learning objectives dampens his creativity, introduces confusion, and creates anxiety.  Preschool is for play and socialization. The readiness dimensions are already met by experiencing peer adjustment and teacher supervision. Preschool shouldn't pressure children to act and think beyond their years. It damages them for life. What is more important for school readiness is that preschool children learn to relate with classmates and teachers and become eager for the experience of spending time doing activities with them that are intended to foster their sense of achievement for what they can realistically do.  Preschool administrators perhaps need to be reminded to keep to daycare arrangements and not get overboard in infusing elementary content. Parents should similarly be reminded to let kids remain kids while they are kids. But maybe it is hard to remember that when one is paying what preschools are charging. It makes one want to see measurable changes for one's money, and this puts the pressure on preschools to imbue kids with circus skills to bring home to their parents.  There is time enough for the child to learn the things he needs to know to get by in this world. With math, especially, it shouldn't be introduced until the child is really ready for it. (Wayward and Fanciful is Gail Ilagan's column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Ilagan teaches Social Justice, Family Sociology, Theories of Socialization and Psychology at the Ateneo de Davao University where she is also the associate editor of Tambara. You may send comments to [email protected] "Send at the risk of a reply," she says.)

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