Why do many people fear mathematics?

The school subject with
of your own fear

Hardly anything is so feared and needs as much tutoring as mathematics among children and parents. Experts believe that one only has to explain the beauty of the numbers.

If mathematicians want to get children excited about their subject, they give them tasks like this: A rope is stretched tightly around the earth along the equator. Then this rope is lengthened by a meter and raised evenly around the globe. Can a mouse slip under the rope now? Scientists from the University of Innsbruck have taken it upon themselves with their "Math - Cool!" Aimed at stimulating children's and young people's interest in mathematics with brain teasers like this one and creative experiments. You go to school classes and want to show that mathematics can be fun. But for many children they encounter, math is a fearful subject. In view of some grades in the semester report, the sentence "Why do I have to learn this crap at all?" like.

Legitimate question. After all, even the mathematician Keith Devlin, who studied at King's College in London and teaches at Stanford University in the USA, admitted in the "Huffington Post" that the mathematical skills he acquired during his studies are largely useless today be. The computer does most of the work for him.

One, two, three, many ...

Small children usually still have fun with numbers. The quantities they handle are manageable and relate to reality. I have three red and two yellow gummy bears, for a total of five. If my sister takes one away from me, it's only four. And that's mean.

Children like to show that they can already count and calculate. In elementary school, 36 percent of fourth graders say that their enjoyment of mathematics is "high" or "rather high", according to a survey carried out by the Federal Institute for Educational Research in 2013 for the survey of "Educational Standards in Mathematics". In this math test, 65 percent managed the level specified for this age group, twelve percent were above average, just as many children partially achieved the standards, eleven percent not at all. A few school years later, mathematics is the most common tutoring subject, with the written Matura the one with the most fives. In 2016, 22 percent of high school graduates did not make it on the first attempt.

At this point the numbers are no longer manageable and the reference to "real life" is seldom made in class. Stefan Thurner is developing a mathematical model at the Medical University of Vienna that can be used to determine how likely it is that people who have an underlying disease will get another disease. So mathematics at a high level. For him, mathematics is a "language that is spoken in more and more areas of life. If I don't learn this language in school, I am illiterate." It's not just about not being ripped off when buying an apartment or understanding your bank statements. It is about fundamental questions. Thurner: "How does democracy work in times when elections are logarithmically influenced by controlled messages in social media? If people don't know their way around, we will enter a new Middle Ages in which a tiny elite who can handle numbers dictates things . "

The most fascinating thing about mathematics, however, is "that everything - from the creation of the universe to the ecosystem - proceeds according to mathematical rules. Many of them are already known, but most have not yet been discovered. Mathematics is a field in which you can still discover new continents, "enthuses Thurner.

In (school) mathematics, it is always about a concrete problem that has to be translated into something abstract. Then you play with formulas and calculation rules and get a result that you then have to translate into a concrete solution. "The crux of the matter is when the teachers fail to translate this. Nobody can only think abstractly in the long run, a student has to know what he is doing, otherwise he is lost - and then someone puts pressure on you to fail. That is then really a hell for children. " For each area of ​​mathematics, a teacher needs "five different stories of how he can explain something. And empathy as to why a child hangs."

Looking back on his schooldays, Thurner says: "I was in school for a year in the USA and it was only there that I learned that I am a little talent." Because the math class was different. First, basic arithmetic steps were practiced for a long time. "Only then did the teacher say: Now I'll show you what it's good for. And you can do it!" Mathematical problems were first discussed in detail in words and then it was said: "Now I'll show you how to do it with a formula in two minutes."

Thurner hopes that every area of ​​mathematics should be formulated as a game. He has known that this works since he played "Dragonbox" on the iPad with a four-year-old. After a short time, without knowing it, he solved quadratic equations at Matura level. Since this school year, "Dragonbox School" has been tested as a teaching aid in Norwegian elementary schools.

Michael Eichmair didn't bother with math at school either. He skipped a class, graduated from high school at 16, began studying mathematics, and went to England and the United States. In 2015, at the age of 33, he became the youngest professor at the University of Vienna. With his project "Mathematik macht Freu (n) de", Eichmair, together with teacher training students and professionals from other fields, is trying to find a fear-free approach to mathematics lessons. Because: "It is no coincidence that math is a fear subject," he says. "Up to the point of admission to the university, the selection runs through this subject. Such a mathematical trauma is often passed on from parents to children." It is well known that many adults still dream of graduating from high school in mathematics.

Eichmair's students coach groups of schoolchildren. "In doing so, the students are not only prepared for school work, but we also work on a basic understanding of and attitude to mathematics," explains Eichmair. Some students have improved by two grades in just a few months.

Back to the stone age

"Without mathematics we would have got stuck in the Stone Age technologically. You could forget your cell phone. With the navigation system and GPS you would be a few hundred meters off without the knowledge of mathematics. Virtually all key technical developments go hand in hand with mathematics. Mathematics graduates work with them Well-known companies such as Google and Facebook. Professions in which mathematics plays a role are found to be particularly attractive in comparative studies. As a society, we cannot afford to spoil the joy of mathematics for children in schools, "says Eichmair .

But what is taught in the mathematics lesson often has far too little reference to everyday reality, criticizes the statistician Erich Neuwirth. He caused a sensation in the summer after the Federal Presidential election was repealed by the Constitutional Court by calculating that the probability of election manipulation is 0.000000000132. That is about a thousandth of the probability of winning the lottery six. Neuwirth is convinced that calculating something like this would also interest the students. That is why he advocates a central office, for example in the Ministry of Education, which should provide current tasks for the schools as a "rapid reaction force". "Because the school books cannot be up-to-date at all." Neuwirth also criticizes the fact that too little work is done on computers in schools. "On the computer I can deal with the tasks experimentally and playfully and see how I find the solution."

So does mathematics, as it is taught now, rightly have a bad reputation? Yes and no, say the Innsbruck experts from "Math - Cool!". "Yes, if only the question 'How to calculate something?' is answered and not the question of 'why' is asked; if mathematics is understood only as calculating according to certain schemes. No, if mathematics is understood as getting to know, discovering and formulating connections and the associated finding - not that Memorization - of methods for determining certain quantities. "

Rightly feared

However, one group of people rightly fears numbers regardless of the quality of the teaching. Those three to six percent of the population who suffer from dyscalculia. In these people, that part of the parietal lobe of the brain that is responsible for processing quantities and mathematical symbols does not function as it does in others, explains Roland Grabner, talent researcher at the University of Graz. You can recognize this very special performance weakness when children have massive problems dealing with numbers from the start, but otherwise achieve normal school performance. Anyone who cannot build up a basic understanding of numbers and quantities as a result has a problem with further learning to calculate.

If someone suffers from dyscalculia, games can help them understand numbers. There are also first attempts to additionally stimulate those parts of the brain that are working deficiently with very weak, barely perceptible direct current. Research on this is still in its infancy, says Grabner. "But there is a growing awareness that teachers also need to know about dyscalculia." Grabner also refers to surveys that show that mathematics "is the only school subject with its own fear". 17 percent of those surveyed have "above average" and three to four percent even "extreme fear" of math. "In these people, the areas of the brain that are also responsible for pain perception are activated before math tasks. While these people are doing the tasks, activity decreases but again in this area of ​​the brain. "

Anyone who is still tinkering with the mouse over the task: Calculate one meter divided by 6.4 (twice pi). That makes a little more than 0.15 meters, i.e. 15 centimeters. A mouse can easily get through there.

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Oliver Bergreport replies

As long as one accepts teachers in schools who are not able to clearly convey the school material to the children entrusted to them, the subject and / or the teachers will also be afraid of it. But there are also students who unfortunately have too little talent and who are not encouraged enough by the teachers either. A former victim.


Spread such nonsense !!! In this subject in particular, the teacher is particularly challenged to explain the subject to the children accordingly and not, as it was 50 years ago: eat or die "(as is still the case today in middle school). Explain so that everyone understands, that is all!


Yes, and that's exactly what this article describes! I think you have a problem with meaningful reading!