Accomplishments and Regrets in 2012

With 2012 coming to a close, I’ve been thinking about my year. I am proud of a lot that I did this year including

  • My application for a Radcliffe Fellowship: I wrote a good application and was brave enough to apply
  • My application for promotion
  • Taking the first steps for my Liberation Math website (
  • The amazing connection I have had with my spouse this year
  • The way I talk to my kids about anything and everything
  • The great talks I gave and connections I made at conferences, workshops, and invited talks this year
  • The connections that I had this year with both my parents
  • Getting a 529 set up for kids for college and setting up regular contributions
  • Solving my long-standing digestive issues! Figuring out that I have SIBO was transformative, and I have made great strides in fixing my problems. Woo hoo!
  • I had a paper accepted to a sociology journal (the paper is in press at Rationality and Society), and I’m a mathematician!
  • I had great connections with students in many of my classes and I feel good about a lot of the teaching I did this year.

    Climb Ev'ry Mountain

    Climb Ev’ry Mountain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I also have some regrets:

  • Not pushing the 529 out to grandparents so they can contribute
  • Not being proactive enough in setting up solo time with my mom
  • Losing the connection with dad for a little while because I stopped calling him
  • Getting angry at my kids and not wanting to stop getting angry and be a grownup
  • Not doing something like yoga or meditation to restore and center myself
  • Letting myself get away with not connecting deeply with my students
  • Not blogging regularly enough
  • Not attending to how my net worth is growing (or, um, not growing)
  • Not dreaming big enough about liberation mathematics (but I’m working on that now!)
  • Spending my energy treading water and distracting myself rather than really digging in (busy bee trait)

I have started to work on setting up dreams, plans, and goals for this upcoming year, so I may blog about those in the coming week. A lot of my energy is going to putting up content at my new site Liberation Math, so come visit me there!


Why did the self-esteem movement fail?

Most of us have heard that the self-esteem movement is a failure, and many believe that the emphasis on self-esteem resulted in a generation or two of entitled yet under-performing students. In math, for instance, it is often quoted that American students think they are great at math, but in reality they are near the bottom of the pack. But why would the self-esteem movement fail? It is certainly well-intentioned and plausible. It seems reasonable that students who feel terrible about themselves are going to have some trouble with learning, so wouldn’t raising self-esteem provide a necessary precondition for learning?

I wonder if the educational emphasis on self-esteem was really just a creative way to address shame and other difficult emotions. When people struggle in school (and in work), it feels terrible. School is an important part of a young person’s identity. When school is going poorly for students, their relationships with teachers and peers are in jeopardy, and they are probably struggling with shame. When we bolster student egos without addressing the underlying educational and relationship issues, we may have helped the students repair relationships, but the shame is still there. If we fail to address the core issues, we are simply helping the students to hide and manage their shame (and as educators became complicit in the hiding). If we fail to challenge students in their education, we communicate to them that we don’t trust them and don’t believe they are capable, which can serve to cement the shame and further disempower and alienate students. I think the real question is how we all learn to deal with failure and shame while staying powerful and connected.

Disrupting Shame in Mathematics

Once we can see that shame is causing problems with mathematics in ourselves or in others, what can we do about it? How can teachers, parents, and those experiencing shame disrupt that shame and claim power through mathematics?

  1. Learn to recognize shame. One of the first ingredients in healing from shame is learning to see that shame is happening. Shame is notoriously difficult to identify because it is a taboo emotion, but you can learn to recognize shame. The best place to start is with your own shame and embarrassment, and shame is ubiquitous, so any day should bring you opportunities. Once you can see shame in yourself, start looking for signs in others. Imagine if you are a teacher or parent that your student or child is embarrassed and you mistook that for not caring or wanting to make trouble. Noticing shame cues, you can be careful not to invade another’s space and activate fear of exposure or to create so much distance that we abandon the other.
  2. Be vulnerable. The only way out of shame is through it. Shame is a signal of a threat to ourselves as social beings, and if we try to ignore or supress shame, we aren’t able to repair relationships. Instead we hide, get angry at ourselves and others, and lose our power and confidence. Expressing worries, embarrassment, and shame openly with others will create safety and opportunities for connection and transformation. Start with colleagues and friends. If you are a teacher, you need to use caution with self-disclosure, but sharing your shame/anxiety/frustration can help students to envision a different ending to their stories, one in which they are more powerful and connected. In the classroom, let students know that you respect them, interrupt threats of humiliation, and apologize when you do something wrong.
  3. Develop critical awareness of mathematics. Work to develop an awareness of the role that math plays in our society, who benefits and who is harmed, and your individual place in that structure. Consider race, class, and gender; look at stereotype threat, implicit attitudes, and issues of access. Take a critical look at mathematics requirements in high school and college and who they serve. If you are a teacher, listen to students, and assume that they have something important to say about mathematics and learning, and create opportunities to learn with your students. Learn more about the educational system, your role in it, and ways that you are kept from authentic engagement and assessment.
  4. Focus on choice of strategy and mindset. Claim your choice of strategy when you encounter mathematics, even if the only strategy you use are avoidance! Learning about other strategies may help you to grow, but simply claiming the power that you already use is important. Learn about mindsets, and explore the mindset you typically use and whether you might want to change. If you are teacher, help your students explore mindsets and strategy. Be careful to avoid moral judgments around mindsets! Growth mindsets can be useful, but they are not “right” — fixed mindsets can be useful as well!
  5. Be aware of emotions in mathematical problem solving. Lots of emotions come up for everyone as we encounter and try to solve problems — frustration, fear, shame, pride, anger, and more. These emotions are a natural part of challenging ourselves and being in connection with others. We don’t have to have therapy every time we sit down to do some math, but it’s useful to be able to label feelings and accept them as part of the process.

I will be writing more about each of these areas in the coming weeks, so stay tuned! Meanwhile, does any of this ring true with you? What am I missing? What do you find useful as a learner or a teacher in changing your relationship with mathematics or other subjects?

Why Shame? Why Mathematics?

Shame is an painful and disruptive emotion in which a person feels a deep-seated failure or flaw in their core self; the feeling is often experienced as feeling exposed, small, worthless, or wanting to withdraw or even die. Although shame can occur in private or in public it is a an emotion that signals a threat to our social being and the feeling can be characterized as feeling unworthy of human connection. Scheff and Retzinger make a case that shame is the “dominant emotion in social interactions,” but note that this shame is often unacknowledged and unclaimed.1 They note that, “Since one’s relationships and emotions don’t show up on a resume’, they have been de-emphasized to the point of disappearance. But shame and relationships don’t disappear, they just assume hidden and disguised forms.” 2

Shaming experiences can happen in all school learning, but students learning mathematics may be particularly vulnerable to such experiences. In a traditional mathematics classroom there is little ambiguity or room for interpretation in problems, and the learning is focused on products, rules, and algorithms. This “right or wrong” nature of mathematics can prevent students from saving face, or otherwise deflecting shame experiences, and can trap students who are struggling in a repeated cycle of negative experiences that are eventually felt as a flawed self. Doing mathematics requires a student to perform in ways that call into question not just her memory, but also her understanding and intelligence, both because mathematics requires the performance of mental skill and because mathematical competence is seen as a stand-in for overall intelligence and ability. As Tamara Bibby says in her paper on shame in mathematics, “It is important to be seen to be able to do/perform mathematics, i.e. ‘do it’ right quickly and efficiently—preferably mentally or with a neat paper and pencil algorithm with as little mark making as possible and with an exact answer.”3

Mathematics is seen as an objective judge, and this aspect of judgment may contribute to the experience of shame. Unlike other subjects, in mathematics there is often no room for other points of view. In science, the interpretation of data may lead to different conclusions, and theories change as new information comes to light. In history, there are some immutable facts, but there is plenty of room for interpretation through different lenses. In English, the interpretation and interaction with the subject is everything. School mathematics also generally requires the student to make a permanent record of their answers as well as the work behind those answers, both of which can make the student vulnerable to judgment.

It is clear why anxiety, panic, and fear were first identified as a barrier to doing mathematics. Many people doing mathematics feel a crippling panic as they sit down to do math. Laurie Buxton separates this anxiety into what she calls “mind chaos” and what she says is more common in math class, a “paralysis” of the mind.4 Fear is the presenting emotion, but shame is the core emotion since the fear is that “through an unwitting self-disclosure, you will allow someone to see your ineptitude and so open yourself to ridicule.”5.

Many people feel silenced by mathematics, lacking the vocabulary and voice to discuss their ideas and feelings. In mathematics classrooms, the discourse is generally out of the control of the student. In everyday conversation, students can manage their own self-disclosure and are likely to be engaged with a supportive other who will acknowledge the separate reality of the speaker. But in a mathematics classroom, the it may be impossible to keep some aspects of work private, and the discussions are around things that are right or wrong with no room for management or hiding.

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The Problem with Math Anxiety

Since the 1970’s when it was first identified, there have been many studies of mathematics anxiety, but what if we are looking in the wrong place for answers? What is termed “anxiety” may be a normal response to mathematics education.1 And even if it is not, we have a society-wide issue with mathematics in the United States,2 so it would be useful to view problems with mathematics in a context that can include community and culture.3 Placing mathematical issues in the frame of anxiety pathologizes the experiences of people struggling with mathematics and make those struggles individual rather than communal.

In the 1970’s and early 1980’s, when early work to frame mathematics anxiety was being done, there was little theoretical underpinning to the study of affective issues in mathematics, and the early work in mathematics anxiety was limited to largely quantitative studies that looked for demonstrable correlation between measures of anxiety and measures of mathematics performance.4 The work lost its political aspect and turned to a study of why girls and women were anxious about math and how to correct that problem. Thus while the problem was reframed from why girls and women are bad at math to why girls and women are anxious about math and what educators might do to help, the frame is still one in which girls and women are flawed in some important way. Perhaps with this new frame, they are flawed in a way that can be fixed, and perhaps we can see that it might be society and educational contexts that contributed to the flaw, but it is still a flaw belonging to the girls and women. As Laura Jacobsen Spielman notes, “Deficit model assumptions that male behavior and outcomes are the desirable norm to which women should strive have underpinned previous policy, much research, and even many intervention programs.5

What is the cause of mathematics anxiety? There has not been sufficient research about the causes of math anxiety, but there is evidence pointing to teachers as a cause.6 Peter Hilton notes in his article from 1980 on mathematics anxiety that math as it is taught in classrooms is “likely to lead them to seek to avoid mathematics.”7 This thinking lays blame on teachers, who are primarily women. “If we must use a medical metaphor, then we are dealing with a mass infection caused by the virus of bad mathematics teaching.” 8 One of the ways that we have responded to our mathematical issues as a society is to push for reforms in mathematics education, but a continual cascade of reforms is hard on teachers, and and creates or exacerbates fear and shame.9 Thus in addressing mathematics anxiety, we may inadvertantly exacerbate the anxiety problem, as there is evidence that mathematics anxiety in teachers can negatively impact students (and particularly the anxiety in female teachers can negatively impact girls’ mathematics attitudes and achievement).

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From Math Shame to Math Liberation

Kid Giving Up on Math HomeworkIn 1976, Ms. Magazine published an article titled “Math Anxiety: Why is a Smart Girl Like You Counting on Your Fingers” by Sheila Tobias. This was the start of a movement in mathematics education to identify and treat the fear of mathematics, especially in women. Women have come a long way mathematically since the 1970’s. On tests of mathematical skills, male and female students are doing comparable work,1 and women have now surpassed men attaining undergraduate degrees in the sciences and mathematics. But there are still issues with equity in mathematics education, from the unequal racial and ethnic achievements that prompted a Florida district to set achievement levels by race, to differences in urban, suburban, and rural mathematics achievement, to the persistent low numbers of female researchers and faculty in mathematics.

We are not just afraid of mathematics — we are ashamed of our mathematical performance. The shame is lurking right up there in the title of the Ms. Magazine article — if you are so “smart,” why are you “counting on your figures?” Finger-counting is like a public proclamation of innumeracy, and the title implies that finger-counters should be ashamed. I have a PhD in math, and I count on my fingers all the time. I was always a terrific math student until I hit my dissertation, and now I, like many other women in math and science, think that I’m not good enough at math. We all feel that being “good at math” is for someone else. We’re good at the math that we have already mastered, whether that is arithmetic, algebra, statistics, or even calculus, but like the children in a 1980’s study by Kouba and McDonald, we don’t think what we’re good at counts as “real math.”

From the “new math” of the 1960’s to the Common Core of this year, there have been many efforts fix our collective problems with mathematics, but has anything changed? Yes, women are no longer shut out of math and science, but the faculty of mathematics departments are still largely male. Yes, we have seen slight narrowing in the achievement gaps between white students and African American students,2 but at the same time we have narrowed the types of thinking that we are asking students to develop3 as we “teach to the test” in order to improve basic skills.

Mathematics is still alienating. Mathematical knowledge is is externally given, unquestionable, abstract, and far too removed for the contexts of people’s lives. Mathematics is one of the few areas in which we think it is good when the students get their entire knowledge about a subject from one source: their teacher.4 In many classrooms, students can’t use methods they learned from elsewhere or methods they invented themselves. Above all, there is an emphasis in mathematics on being “right” that just isn’t present in other areas. Mathematics is seen as an objective arbiter. Unlike other subjects, there is often no room for other points of view. In science, the interpretation of data may lead to different conclusions, and theories change as new information comes to light. In history, there are some immutable facts, but there is plenty of room for interpretation of those facts through different lenses. In literature, the interpretation and interaction with the subject is everything. In mathematics, you are right or you are wrong.

This “right or wrong” nature of mathematics can prevent students from saving face or contextualizing their mathematical work and can trap students who are struggling in a repeated cycle of negative experiences that are eventually felt as a flawed self. Doing mathematics requires a student to perform in ways that call into question not just memory, but also understanding and intelligence, both because math requires the performance of mental skill and because mathematical competence is seen as a stand-in for overall intelligence and ability. People feel silenced by mathematics, lacking the vocabulary and voice to discuss their ideas and thoughts.

All of this adds up to a culture of mathematics that is alienating and disenfranchising. As math educators, if we want to truly change mathematics education, we have to start by actually listening to students and adults who have been silenced and shamed. We have to reach out to the people who have been so turned off by the state of education that they have chosen to remove themselves from the conversation. If we want to create a system of mathematics learning that gives people power, then we have to stop looking for ways to convince everyone that math is amazing and essential and start believing them when they tell us it is not.

Even while we listen to those who have been left behind and find ways to help people deal with their mathematical shame, we have to use caution. The self-esteem movement of the 1970s had a big impact on education. It was thought that raising students’ self-esteem would increase their interest in and enjoyment of subjects (such as mathematics). Those theories have been widely debunked,5 and some believe the emphasis on self-esteem has produced generation of young people that feel entitled to praise and benefits regardless of their performance. We don’t want to repeat these mistakes in mathematics. The reason to talk about mathematical shame and disenfranchisement is not so that we can all feel better about ourselves. On the contrary, we need to deeply challenge ourselves and our children. We need to expand the conversation from “why math sucks” and “why people suck at math” to how can we change mathematics and ourselves so that we are able to be more powerful mathematically as a culture.

It is up to each of you to do something about mathematics education. You can’t leave the job to math teachers and professors of mathematics like myself, because we’ve already shown that we don’t have the answers. Your thoughts about mathematics are crucial in order to improve the mathematics situation in the US.