The Fear of Mathematics

In this essay, I shall outline, what I believe are, the reasons why many children dislike and/or fear math in India and the tensions involved in working to alleviate this problem. I shall explore this issue through the lens of my experiences as a teacher and educator within the system at large.

When I stepped into my fourth-grade classroom for the first time, it was on the back of a five-week training program designed for new teachers. One of the key features of this program was the focus on how to create lesson plans and unit plans aligned to the textbook and curriculum prescribed by the state government. As a novice teacher, the math textbook was a resource that I depended on to guide my planning. Besides that, the textbook served as a link in two ways – one, as a common language between me, my students and their parents and two, as the translation of the thoughts of policy makers and curriculum experts to the act of teaching. Having to consult the textbook daily, I was often frustrated and bewildered by how drab they were – filled with numbers and focused on rote learning of steps without a clear explanation as to the ‘why’ behind the steps. For example, the chapter on decimals and their relation to fractions is a conceptually rich topic that connects the nuances of the number system in an elegant way; however, the textbook reduced it to problem sets which asked kids to multiply/divide by 10, 100 and 1000 by ‘shifting the decimal point’ without touching upon the occurrence and need for tenths and hundredths in real life. At times, I found myself overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information that children needed to superficially remember and was constrained by both time and my limited pedagogical knowledge in going deeper into the concepts. From my interactions with other teachers, I realised that I was not alone in feeling this way. I believe that these are some of the factors that contribute to children’s negative perception of mathematics.

The assessment or test that children give at various points to show their progress is another integral feature that, as currently administered, causes dread for both the student and teacher. The emphasis in textbooks on the final numerical answer gets mirrored in tests. This makes children view math as a binary subject with two absolutes – right and wrong – and narrows their vision towards an algorithmic approach with the goal of reaching the accepted right answer. When I taught primary grades (4 and 5), I had a lot more flexibility in designing tests and rewarding children for the process over the final answer. However, when I taught grades 9 and 10, I was compelled to correct their work with a rigid solution key to match what they would experience when they gave their board examinations in grade 10. As a teacher, I found this very restrictive. It was a point of stress for my students who quickly realised that, no matter how much we explored the topic and however strong their understanding was, it counted for little if they did not present their work in accordance with the solution key. Consequently, they regarded mistakes in a negative light and not as opportunities for learning. Calculators were not permitted which further increased the stakes as children might understand the question and concept but lose significant amount of marks if they made a careless calculation error. Evidently, assessments shape children’s experience of mathematics and how they feel about their abilities.

The pedagogy that I experimented with as a teacher was intrinsically linked to both the textbook and assessment. For instance, I used to divide a 45-minute math period as follows:

Homework discussion – 10 minutes
New concept or problem type which I explained/modelled – 10 minutes
Practicing the new concept/problem type together – 10 minutes
Independent question solving – 10 minutes
Exit slip or math drill – 5 minutes

In the curriculum and on the assessment, the importance given to solving questions that required students to memorise processes/steps shaped how I planned my classes. This was especially true for my high school students as most of the time was devoted to solving exercise questions either together or individually. I used to assign homework from the exercises or print out worksheets for my students that targeted the learning objectives. Such a system was imperative to them doing well in their exams, but it came at the cost of being able to spend time in projects and exploratory activities. For example, trigonometry is a topic I enjoy teaching and has applications in navigation and architecture. However, the syllabus I had to follow reduced it to a few fixed problem types with standard angles (0°, 30°, 45°, 60° and 90°) and an emphasis on correct calculation rather than understanding novel problems and applying concepts accordingly. This was drab, often not mentally stimulating for my students and contributed to their sentiments about mathematics.

Math is a subject that holds an important status in India. Children who score higher marks on school tests and Olympiads are regarded as smarter than their peers. The confidence that they develop is infectious. I recall several of my students who were strong at math but not in languages. They used the confidence that that got from being good at math to try harder at languages while the opposite, confidence in languages feeding into math, was rarer. The weight given to math extends to career decisions as well; children who consider themselves poor at math automatically rule out fields such as engineering, technology and economics. In short, there is social pressure and professional implications associated with math that tarnishes students’ experience of the subject.

It is worth analysing why textbooks and assessments are in the forms described earlier. First, it is more convenient and economical – in terms of both time and resources – to teach and assess in this manner. India has over 300 million children with student-to-teacher ratios in schools averaging about 35:1. Engaging in learning that involves projects requires a lot of planning time and resources which is in short supply in schools in India. For example, I had 42 fifth grade students during my second year of teaching with a school day that started at 7:30 a.m. and ended at 12:10 p.m. giving me 90 minutes of instructional time to cover both math and English. Second, math is seen as a means to an end – it is a crucial subject on entrance tests for highly regarded fields such as engineering, computer science and banking. Competition to gain admission into good high schools and undergraduate colleges is intense. The sheer number of applicants makes tests with multiple-choice questions the quickest way of judging a student’s academic ability. Math is taught in a way to help them crack these tests. The fact that these exams test speed and a vast syllabus strongly influences curriculum, assessments and pedagogy at the school level with students touching upon many topics with little or no time to explore a concept in more depth. Unsurprisingly, by the time children finish with school, many of them are exhausted by their math experiences.

However, there are seeds of hope being sown in schools in urban India. With access to regular electricity and the internet, teachers are getting more time and academic resources to plan their classes. Textbooks have been undergoing transformations over the past decade and are richer in visuals and real-life applications that ever before. Awareness among both policy makers and the public is on the rise but some of the features of the education system are deeply embedded and it will take time and consistent effort to change them. As Ovid, a Roman poet, once said, “Dripping water hollows out stone, not through force but through persistence” and it is this kind of mentality that I try to consciously bring to my own work in the sector.

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This essay was submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the course EDU T008 - Power and Pedagogy: Self, Society and Transformation completed by the author at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The topic for the essay was to write about an issue related to education that was particularly important to me. One of the aims of the course was to help students place themselves in relation to fundamental problems in the practice and theory of education. The course focused on dilemmas that arise from contradictions at the core of contemporary society and which cannot be solved through simple reasoning or by applying so-called 'best practices'.


  1. Taking up your point about using mandated textbooks that do not do much justice to the subject matter: I faced a similar conundrum when I entered the fellowship. I taught a class of fifty-eight Grade 5 stu-dents in a private school (with no co-teacher, either from the school or from the organisation, so I had to teach all subjects, but I won’t expand on that aspect of it now). Since my area of strength was language teaching, I’ll talk about that for now, specifically the English textbooks. Like you, I had to use the man-dated English textbook in the classroom, because the principal was strict about workbooks being filled in; and also because school exams were based on these texts, even though I had more flexibility there, since I created the question papers myself. However, the texts in these books were, to put it mildly, un-interesting – right from the topic/theme to the writing quality, and from the layout to the visuals. The reason for this may be that with such a huge population to cater to and books being provided free of cost, it is probably not possible to bring on skilled writers who charge more, to bear the cost of in-creased number of pages for a more child-friendly layout, and to purchase high-quality visuals. I found the texts tedious to read, and so it was a no-brainer that my kids would find them boring too, and to some extent even tough to follow. So here was my solution: I HAD to use these texts (though I did manage to bring in other stories and poems too, when time allowed), so I started typing them out and putting in images off the net (black-and-white; couldn’t afford to print with colour) as well as clues, puzzles, meanings of tough words, and skill-based questions. This also gave me the opportunity to dif-ferentiate better. For example, a question in such a story sheet would be in higher level words for the group of students who were at or above grade level, and in simpler words + pictures for the struggling students. This way, all students answered the same questions about the same story, but the differentia-tion was invisible. While typing out these stories, I would also make tweaks to ensure better writing quality and that the plot flowed more smoothly. One of the turning points for such reading lessons was one that I also wrote in my Harvard SOP, because it was just such a palpable turning point: in one of the stories, a bear was sitting on a rock in the middle of a pond, fishing with a pole. In the picture I put in, the bear had a net. I asked my kids what was wrong with the picture. It took them a while, but once they got it, they began to pay more attention to the story. Over the year, reading became one of our most enjoyable classes, because the clues and puzzles and questions kept them on their toes. Of course, spontaneous class discussions and debates and jokes made them all the more fun.

    I would put up these story sheets in the shared Dropbox folder, and fellows from other schools in other cities too started using them, and I’d get a lot of encouraging feedback from them. In reading, pre-set lesson plans do help a lot, which is why I love my work with XSEED, because for overloaded teachers, creating these lesson plans and resources is very time-intensive. But when it comes to reading, the role of an enthusiastic teacher who loves reading herself/himself is the most crucial. Tech can only do so much to improve reading (while it can do a lot more to improve grammar, phonics and vocabulary, be-cause there are set rules in those, and practice helps). The question to grapple with for me is: how do we scale practices that inculcate the love of reading too? Human resources are our best bet, but for that we need people who love reading and also love to teach reading to begin with.

    1. Ritu,

      I appreciate the depth of your comment and your clear desire in improving your students' reading experiences. :-)

      One thing that resonated with me from your comment was the lines - "I started typing them out and putting in images off the net (black-and-white; couldn’t afford to print with colour) as well as clues, puzzles, meanings of tough words, and skill-based questions." This brings up a point that I have pondered a great deal viz. you (and Teach For India fellows with your level of dedication) and I had the time and mental space to engage in such activities as we did not have domestic responsibilities and families to look after. We were young and the fellowship was our first (or, in some case, second) full-time job and we had the energy to spend long hours at school and after to create positive learning experiences for our children. Would a veteran teacher with 10+ years of experience and a family of his/her own to look after have the time, energy and motivation to do the same?

      On the plus side, I have observed an improvement in textbooks in India over the past 4-5 years with state boards attempting to write their books along the lines of NCERT textbooks. Thus, lower grade books have visuals that add value to the content and suggested activities at the end of the chapter go beyond the "Answer the following:", "Write true or false." and "Match the following" type questions that characterised textbooks when I was a student! I hope this goes some way towards inculcating a love for reading in children.

      Your second point is great food for thought and drives home a point that I firmly believe in - technology can aid but cannot replace the teacher. Of course, teachers need to be supported and also willing to constantly learn and adapt. Are there a set of practices that have proved to inculcate the love of reading in a majority of children? How does one learn these practices? Can they be adopted with ease by teachers? What resources are required to scale these practices up?

      Lastly, you alluded to the importance of teachers having passion for the subject that they are teaching when you wrote "when it comes to reading, the role of an enthusiastic teacher who loves reading herself/himself is the most crucial". A question that came to my mind when I read this was whether such enthusiasm and love for reading can be inculcated in teachers who are adults and might be set in their ways? Or is it something that takes root at a young age and develops over one's lifetime?

  2. Did you know that math anxiety is a serious problem? In fact, the term 'methophobia' has been coined to describe a feeling of fear, tension, and anxiety about the ability to do the math. This fear hinders a child's ability to perform well in maths. Sit down with your child and discuss her math fears. Help your child accept the fact that he may not be enjoying the same level of comfort with maths as other subjects. Acceptance is always the first step towards dealing with any problem. You can also do maths prepration with the help of online websites and applications. Thanks for sharing.


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