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How to master anxiety about maths

X + 2y = 3z. This is the stuff of which nightmares are made. Even 20 years after leaving school, we can still wake up in a sweat from a maths-related dream. Maths anxiety (MA) is a debilitating but learned behaviour. As South African youth commence the new academic year, it’s pertinent for teachers and parents to be at the forefront of addressing this problem that begins at school.

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RONEL KLATZKIN

“Pumpkin” was the name my Grade 2 maths teacher gave me. She probably thought it was cute, but for me, it never failed to invoke feelings of shame that I was the last person in the class to work out the maths sum we had been given in the game we were playing.

Says Wanda Yanuarto from the department of math education at the University of Muhammadiyah Purwokerto in Indonesia, “Research confirms that pressure of timed tests and risks of public embarrassment have long been recognised as sources of unproductive tension among many students. The three traditional maths classroom practices that cause great anxiety in many students are imposed authority, public exposure, and time deadlines.” Clearly my teacher had never met Yanuarto.

Researchers from the Centre for Neuroscience in Education (CNE) in the United Kingdom describe MA as a negative emotional reaction to maths, which includes tension and anxiety that interfere with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of mathematical problems in ordinary life and academic situations. It’s not something that people are born with, like dyscalculia, but rather a thought process that leads to stress and avoidance. The researchers suggest that between 2%-6% of students experience extreme MA at secondary school level in the UK.

Gita Lipschitz, school counsellor at King David Victory Park High School in Johannesburg, explains that “the part of the brain that is responsible for logic, problem-solving, and decision-making [the temporal lobe] is unable to function if the emotional brain is overwhelmed”. This emotional brain refers to the “limbic system”, interconnected brain structures responsible for much of our emotional experience. This explains why I couldn’t work out the answers in the “Pumpkin” game quickly enough, as my brain was experiencing the emotion of humiliation, which then shut down my logical side.

As I grew older, I struggled to stay calm during timed tests. I would forget how to do the sums for which I had practised, or I would rush through the paper, submitting implausible answers just to finish. Yanuarto believes that MA reduces cognitive reflection – students will generate and accept responses quickly, without taking the time to check or correct, as I did. The CNE suggests that there is a relationship between MA and performance in maths tests, which has been summarised into three models. The Deficit Theory maintains that poor maths performance leads to an increase in MA. This would imply that if little Johnny, for example, received 20% for a test, his anxiety would increase during his next test. The Debilitating Anxiety Model explains that the relationship works in reverse, i.e. little Johnny arrives at the maths test already feeling anxious about the test, and this then affects his performance. The Reciprocal Theory suggests that the relationship between MA and maths performance operates in both directions: increased MA results in decreased maths performance, and vice versa. Poor little Johnny is caught in a vicious cycle.

It’s situations like these that require especially empathetic and caring teachers. Hayley Kobrin, a maths and maths literacy teacher, says that she spends the first six months of the year boosting her students’ confidence, going slowly, and keeping assessments basic so that they can internalise that they can cope with the work. “Students arrive in my classroom hating maths because they’ve usually been told by a teacher or parent that they can’t do it. They are totally paralysed by the subject,” she says.

But what created this anxiety in the first place? Kobrin suggests that sometimes concepts are taught at the wrong time – too early perhaps – because age and maturity have an effect on understanding. She also maintains that parents “almost give their children permission”, by telling their children that they couldn’t do the work when they were young. The child then internalises that he or she doesn’t have to do the work – if the parent gave up, why should the child continue?

The teacher’s attitude is also important. Kobrin clarifies that “sometimes switching over to new methodology, say if the school decides to adopt a new curriculum, can cause anxiety in teachers. Sometimes the teachers will even leave out the difficult sums because they are not equipped to deal with them”. This happened to the child of a close friend of Kobrin, who came to Kobrin for assistance with a particular sum. However, when the child’s teacher was going over the homework the next day and got to that sum, she told the class “let’s leave that one out”. This attitude leaves the child without the tools and grit to tackle a difficult sum.

In order for MA to be prevented, or at least managed, children must be encouraged, even when they make mistakes. Yanuarto believes that “incorrect responses must be handled in a positive way to encourage participation and enhance confidence”. She also believes students learn best when they are actively engaged in a task instead of passively watching the teacher. Therefore, teachers should employ different ways to teach new concepts, such as play acting, group work, visual aids, hands-on activities and technology (and hopefully no games such as “Pumpkin”!).

Yanuarto says parents should show their children that maths can be used in fun and practical ways, such as in cooking, sports, or games such as Sudoko or cards. A positive attitude towards maths will not only benefit the child while he or she is at school, but as an adult. Unfortunately, many adults avoid maths-related situations, for example, paying taxes or understanding retirement savings, because of MA. People also avoid careers in which they would need to use maths. I, for example, made a conscious decision to choose a Bachelor of Arts over a Bachelor of Science so that I could avoid first-year maths.

In South Africa, where there is a need for maths and science-related careers, it’s imperative that teachers and parents work as a team so that their children will feel less like pumpkins and more like Princess Cinderella and Prince Charming – in love with maths and living happily ever after.

  • Ronel Klatzkin is a high school English teacher at King David Victory Park, where she runs two successful extra-mural groups, Writing Club, and Slam Poetry.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Shirley Snoyman

    Jan 19, 2020 at 6:57 am

    ‘Hi Ronel,

    What an outstanding article. I am a Maths teacher in Sydney and cannot agree more that Maths Anxiety activates activity in our ancient brains whereas we require activity to be in the mid pre frontal cortex. I teach my students meditation techniques to physically move this activity to this region. I have had really positive results in particular a student who left his final HSC exam from anxiety, did the 3 minute breathing exercise I had taught him and went back to complete his exam. He texted me last month that he got a band 6, the highest band achievable in the HSC. I would love to chat to you about train the trainer approach of these techniques. I do travel to South Africa from time to time so if this is of interest, please reach out so we can set up a date and time to meet. Warm regards Shirley ‘

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Voices

Don’t panic, but behave responsibly

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The announcement of the new Omicron variant and its dire impact on overseas travel continues to dominate the news. With the sharp increase in infection numbers in Gauteng, the Board on 28 November convened a meeting of the national leadership of the major communal bodies together with Professor Barry Schoub and Dr Richard Friedland, two experts in the field of communicable diseases who have guided and advised us throughout the COVID-19 crisis. At our request, Professor Schoub and Dr Friedland have prepared guidelines on how to reduce the impact of the impending fourth wave on our community. These can be found on our Facebook page. To watch last week’s “Midweek COVID-19 Update with Professor Schoub”, visit https://bit.ly/2VpwmKX. Those who have any questions for Professor Schoub can leave them in the comment section or email midweekcovidupdate@gmail.com.

Fighting the good fight

One welcome piece of good news over the weekend was that Miss South Africa, Lalela Mswane, had arrived in Israel in preparation for taking part in the Miss Universe contest. This was in spite of a sustained campaign by Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) factions to prevent her participation, characterised by intimidation, defamation, blackmail, and misinformation. The Board saw it as essential to have a voice in this debate as the intent clearly is to target the only Jewish state in a way intended to deny and demonise South African Jews’ historical, cultural, religious, and familial ties to Israel. We engaged in the debates and obtained significant press coverage to offer an alternative narrative to the hate-filled position of those calling for boycotts.

The Board was also called on last week to respond to various statements by organisations like Africa4Palestine, the Media Review Network, and the Muslim Lawyers Association on the death in a terror attack of former community member Eli Kay. Using the language of demonisation and incitement that led to Eli’s murder in the first place, these factions brazenly celebrated and sought to justify the atrocity. In an opinion piece for News24, South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) Vice-President Mary Kluk pointed out how such dehumanisation is an inevitable stage in a process that if left unchecked, can easily have deadly consequences. While not inciting violence directly, the hate-filled rhetoric of the BDS lobby is fostering an environment in which such attacks become that much more likely.

As a former chairperson and long-serving SAJBD executive member, a much respected World Jewish Congress executive member, and in her capacity as director of the Durban Holocaust Centre, Kluk has for many years been at the forefront of defending Jewish rights while also promoting the kind of culture of respect and tolerance for diversity that’s so critical to South Africa’s future as a united, democratic, and non-racial society. To find out more about her career, see Wendy Kahn’s tribute in the latest issue of Jewish Life. A link to the article, as well as to Kluk’s News24 column, can be found on our Facebook page.

  • Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday from 12:00 to 13:00.

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Voices

Of doggie dreams and the kindness of strangers

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This isn’t a column about Daisy. It’s a column about kindness and appreciation. And even though Daisy, our beloved German Shepherd, is central to the story, she’s not the least of what it’s about.

Daisy died yesterday. It involved a Checkers Sixty60 guy, a motorbike, and the unfulfilled dream of a dog whose ambition was some day, before her dog years were up, to catch one. Yesterday she finally did it. Although sadly it didn’t end well. Not for Daisy or the bike. The Sixty60 guy was thankfully fine.

I was in a meeting when I started to receive calls. When they became insistent, I answered to hear the frantic voice of a woman I’d never met. She explained that Daisy, who had been taken for her daily walk by Prince, had been involved in an accident. She assured me that she, and a few others, would stay with Prince, who was distraught, and with Daisy (who wasn’t in a state to be aware) until help arrived. They had called CAP Security as well as the vet, who was apparently on the way.

Before anyone had had a chance to leave the house, she called again with an update. The vet had arrived and along with CAP were escorting Daisy to the vet for urgent care. She explained where they were going, and suggested that we go straight there. She also reiterated that what had happened was no one’s fault. Daisy had managed to get out of her harness and Prince was in need of a little TLC.

By the time we arrived at the vet a few minutes later, Daisy had passed away. It was that quick. And there was clearly little that could have been done.

We gathered at home in shocked silence trying to process what had happened when my wife received this message, “Hi Heidi, Zameer here from CAP Security. My deepest condolences for the loss of your Shepherd. We did our best to take her as soon as possible to the Orange Grove vet. We arrived on the scene three minutes after it happened. If there’s anything we can do for you at CAP, please let us know. We also offer K9 therapy to overcome trauma, with a friendly female dog called Storm. Kind regards Zameer.”

As if the kindness of strangers who sat with Prince as he cried over Daisy, who called us and made sure that we understood the situation, and who arranged for the vet and CAP to assist wasn’t enough, we now had this message to contend with.

It’s remarkable the difference these gestures made to us on what was a terrible day.

We knew of Daisy’s aspiration to one day catch a Sixty60 delivery guy, but as she hadn’t been well lately, we all assumed that her dreams would never be actualised. Until yesterday when, in a last burst of youth, she broke through her harness and finally did what she had dreamed of doing for all her dog years.

I have no idea if there’s a dog heaven. But if there is, it’s filled with kind people like those who sit with a dying dog, with people like Prince, with vets, and with people like Zameer who reach out to strangers to show they care. I guess there’s also an ongoing supply of Checkers Sixty60 guys who ride up and down to fulfil unrealised dreams.

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Voices

Killing of innocents can never be justified

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Our community was shocked and grief-stricken to learn over the weekend that one of its own young members, Eliyahu David Kay, had been fatally wounded in a Hamas-inspired terrorist attack while on his way to pray at the Kotel in Jerusalem. It’s always saddening when fellow Jews around the world fall victim to such hate crimes, but it strikes that much closer to home when the victim is one of our own. At the time of writing, we are working with other communal bodies to organise a memorial gathering for a much loved young man whose life was so cruelly and unjustly cut short. May his family be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

The widely differing responses to Eliyahu’s murder tell us much about how and why such tragedies occur in the first place. Though most people who commented online and in other forums expressed shock and heartfelt sympathy, we were appalled also to see comments from certain organisations and individuals justifying the atrocity. On the local front, an organisation formerly known as Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions South Africa and now calling itself Africa4Palestine has been especially shameless in pushing this line. This is hardly unexpected given how over many years, this organisation has persistently sought to poison public attitudes not only towards Israel but towards the Jewish community for supporting and identifying with it. Of late, even non-Jewish supporters of Israel have become the targets of such hate-mongering.

The danger of extremist ideologies like those espoused by Africa4Palestine is that almost invariably, those who oppose them are portrayed as not merely wrong, but fundamentally evil. This in turn leads to them being regarded as so morally beyond the pale as to be undeserving of the basic rights that other people automatically enjoy, sometimes including even the right to life itself. Such dehumanisation is one of the essential first steps in a process that left unchecked, can easily lead to lethal acts of violence and in extreme cases, to genocide.

No amount of hyperbolic rhetoric about Israel’s purported misdeeds can justify the cold-blooded killing of unarmed civilians simply on the basis of their being Jews. This is the underlying justification that antisemitic fanatics claim for their actions, and we must be untiring in our efforts to confront and expose this evil. All genocides in history were justified at the time by what appeared to be righteous indignation on the part of the perpetrators. When examined more closely, however, their causes came down to simple, unadorned hatred. Nor can we ever feel pleasure over the death of innocents, even when suffered by our avowed enemies. When we lose our sense of empathy at the loss of any life – and how much more so when such tragedies are perversely celebrated – we lose our very humanity. In taking a stand against the constant vilification that Israel and our community are subjected to in certain quarters, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies is always careful not to itself descend to such depths. I urge those wishing to respond to such attacks, whether online or in other contexts, to similarly be careful as to how they express themselves.

  • Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday from 12:00 to 13:00.

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