• # Understanding Math Anxiety

By Henry Borenson, Ed.D.

Homeschooling parents who were not especially good at mathematics in school often experience anxiety when introducing their children to algebra. As one parent wrote, “I was never good at math. When I started homeschooling my oldest, I was terrified of teaching it!”

It’s easy to understand this apprehension, considering how many parents were taught mathematics, especially algebra.

Far too often mathematics has been taught as a body of knowledge for which rules are learned and applied without understanding. As a result many students never quite know whether what they are doing is correct. This drawback is compounded when a problem’s solution requires several steps.

Algebra is like a foreign language. Consider if you presented a student with several Chinese symbols and a set of rules for working with them. Common sense does not seem to be part of the process. Unfortunately, this is how many schools present algebra. As a result students’ attempts to memorize procedures lead to all kinds of errors. For example, a child faced with the problem 2x + 3 might come up with 5x, an incorrect answer. Or a child might be told, “Whatever you do to one side of an equation, you must do to the other.” Applying this rule blindly, the child looks at 4x + 2 = 2x + 10 and crosses out the 2 on each side, an incorrect procedure.

Parent must strive, in every area of mathematics, to introduce the subject in a manner that makes sense to both the parent and the child. Using tactile/kinesthetic and visual models can help because doing so enables the child to activate different learning modalities.

This is especially true in the area of algebra, which is so abstract to begin with. The program Hands-On Equations accomplishes this strategy by using blue pawns to represent the unknown x, numbered cubes to represent the constants, and a representation of a balance scale to convey the concept of equality.

By using this visual and tactile/kinesthetic methodology homeschooling parents of even young students can readily teach their children to solve equations such as 4x + 3 = 3x + 9 by means of a four-step process.

Step 1. The abstract equation is transformed into the physical representation shown below:

Physical representation of the equation 4x + 2 = 3x + 9.

Step 2. The child physically removes three blue pawns from each side—a process called a “legal move” because it maintains the balance of the equation—to arrive at a simplified setup:

The equation 4x + 2 = 3x + 9 has been simplified.

Step 3. Now the equation is represented by a blue pawn and a 2-cube on the left side and a 9-cube on the right side. Therefore the missing weight (x) is 7. And so the child writes x = 7.

Step 4. The final step involves checking the answer by substituting 7 for the pawn in the first illustration above. By so doing the child can see that both sides of the equation have a value of 30. Checking the answer empowers the student, who now does not have to rely on a teacher to confirm whether the answer is correct.

Does this visual and tactile approach of Hands-On Equations enable students to make sense of algebra? Here’s how one parent answered:

We discovered that our eleven-year-old daughter was an extremely visual, picture-thinker after she shut down in fourth grade, academically and emotionally. Algebra is like a language (a weakness for visual thinkers). I knew she’d face an uphill battle. After 15 minutes of Hands-On Equations, she solved complex equations and her confidence skyrocketed.

As an end-of-year gift to SecularHomeschool.com parents, Borenson and Associates is providing a 20% discount on any online purchases made prior to the end of the year. Please use coupon code “SHS121120A.”

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