I hate math: What we want young children NOT to learn
Many early childhood teachers don’t like mathematics and
feel they’re not good at it. These negative feelings often
stem from their memories of how they experienced math instruction
in school (Jackson and Leffingwell 1999).
Think back to your own school days, perhaps filled with timed tests or high pressured
assignments designed to ensure you had the math basics. I remember that first
thing every morning in third grade, we had to write the complete multiplication
tables up to 12 in under two minutes. We could not move to the next table until
we had mastered the previous one. While most of my friends had moved to the sixes
and above, I was still working on the threes.
It’s almost 30 years later, and yet I can still remember how mortifying
it was that I was “bad at math.” For years after, I struggled with
feelings of self-doubt. Math was my most dreaded subject in school—as a
student and a teacher.
Research shows that I am not alone. Many teachers recall being taught mathematics
in an environment filled with tension and frustrations. Long into adulthood,
feelings of math anxiety and failure persist (Tobias 1993). These negative feelings
can affect later teaching practice. The feelings can cover a wide range: from
a general lack of confidence in the ability to use mathematics correctly, to
beliefs about mathematics teaching and learning that are contrary to appropriate
practice, to a lack of interest in the teaching of mathematics at all (Harper
and Daane 1998).
Hating math and passing it on
The early years lay the foundation for future attitudes toward
mathematics (Philippou and Christou 1998). Young children in
their everyday life gradually develop an intuitive and practical
arithmetic that they use to successfully and confidently solve
problems (Ginsburg 1989).
Yet spontaneous positive attitudes may just as easily be repressed
and replaced with boredom or increasing worry about performance
on school mathematic tasks. As Deborah Ball (1995) asserts, traditional
mathematics has focused on “copy and practice” what
the teacher does rather than the exciting, challenging kind of
problem posing that inspires discussion and passion about the
As a result, early childhood mathematics instruction today may
be similar to what I experienced all those years ago—filled
with tedious, irrelevant, and uninteresting experiences (Gates
Young children approach mathematics in a natural and inquisitive
manner. Yet many early childhood teachers, stuck with their negative
math mindset, do not approach mathematics instruction in the
same way as their students. This is a problem because young children
tend to internalize their teachers’ enthusiasm – or
lack thereof (Jackson and Leffingwell 1999). Mathophobic teachers
like myself may be unaware that just a lack of interest in mathematics
is hurtful. We may unconsciously model our lack of conviction
in the importance of math.
Perhaps more damaging, teachers often engage in traditional instructional
methods (Philippou and Christou 1998). These methods focus on
assessment of outcomes – that is, increasing rote performance
rather than enhancing early, real-world, mathematical knowledge.
Teaching to a test or standard masks the essence of mathematics—a
way of organizing and communicating about the natural world.
Teaching to a test also fails to help children develop intrinsic
interest in mathematics as a useful and valuable life endeavor.
Moreover, continuing stressful school environments that focus
on task performance over emotional safety may lead to math anxiety
issues (Gierl and Bisanz 1995). So the vicious cycle continues:
high pressure tasks, unimaginative instruction, and negative
teacher attitudes combine to create the next “I hate math” generation.
But we can break the cycle
1. Acknowledge our mathophobic feelings.
The first step in breaking the “I hate math” cycle
is to acknowledge the emotional mathematical baggage we as teachers
carry. That is not to say that overcoming math anxiety, or math
aversion, is easy. They are real psychological phenomena (Sperry
Smith 2009). But just identifying any negative feelings related
to mathematics teaching and learning and reflecting on their
source can be liberating.
2. Redefine ourselves as competent mathematicians.
This step is
as simple as realizing we possess enough mathematical knowledge
to create positive mathematical experiences for our early childhood
students. The same teachers who are quick to say, “I stink at math” and “I hate math” are
the ones who also regularly (and successfully) use mathematics
in everyday life. They cook, play card games, and solve problems
in hobbies and home maintenance. All of these real-world activities
are mathematically based and use mathematical concepts and processes
that are developmentally appropriate for early childhood.
3. Carefully examine our past teaching practice.
Take the time to critically look at how negative feelings toward
mathematics may be influencing what—and how—we
teach. Reflect on the following:
Have I set developmentally appropriate mathematics instructional
Are the methods I use designed to engage and inspire my students?
Do I capitalize on opportunities to deepen my students’ intuitive
knowledge? Or do I shy away from potentially math-rich moments?
Do I model the relevance and importance of mathematics to everyday
life for my students?
Finding the answers will require self-reflection and a bit of
research. Helpful information is available in articles and workshops
from the National Association for the Education of Young Children
(www.naeyc.org) and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics
4. Create a new vision of what early childhood
mathematics should be.
Put aside preconceived notions of what mathematics instruction
is. Redefine what early childhood mathematics should be: another
tool for building confident, capable problem solvers and informed
How to re-envision early childhood mathematics
Use the following suggestions to help you reframe mathematical
experiences for the children you teach.
View mathematics as process rather than a rigid set of facts
to be memorized.
mathematics is not a set of facts to be memorized or routines
to be applied to specific problems. Instead, the focus is on
sense-making and problem-solving. Here the process of solving
a problem is just as important as a correct answer.
Respond to cues from students, rather than impose
knowledge on them. Letting children explore problems in ways
that are meaningful to them, rather than imposing a specific
method, allows for a deeper understanding of, and confidence
in, the intuitive mathematics they generate. This means shifting
from traditional instructional methods (in which the teacher
shows and tells, and the students copy and practice), to instruction
where teachers challenge and question, and students generate
and evaluate mathematical ideas.
on children’s natural tendency to use mathematics
to make sense of their physical and social world.
thinking is embedded in the routines of daily life from infancy.
Mathematics at its essence is the organization of the world around
us. Every time a child helps cook, asks the time, or plays a
game, the child experiences mathematics in action. Children intuitively
use mathematics as a way of organizing information to make decisions
about and understand their world. Mathematics comes from common
sense as children construct, revise, and integrate ideas.
Carefully observe your students to find ways
to continue to spark interest and a desire for active exploration.
When curiosity is aroused, natural engagement and excitement
in the usefulness of mathematics as a decision-making tool often
Expand your definition of what constitutes mathematics and rediscover
your own mathematical curiosity. This allows for the generation
of more “teachable moments”—opportunities to
highlight the math that is all around us. These moments can prompt
your students to realize that mathematics is a common and familiar
activity that they are capable of doing.
This means focusing on and reinforcing the mathematical names
and claims children use. Children may say, for example, “I
have three,” “That’s about half,” and “She
has more.” When we hear such claims, we can prompt children
to mathematically evaluate them.
By paying attention to these three practices (mathematical naming,
claiming, and evaluating), we use classroom talk as a natural
vehicle for engaging young children in mathematical reasoning
(Ball, Lewis and Thames 2008).
Present mathematical activities in multiple ways, throughout
the day and across the curriculum.
Young children do not naturally perceive their world as separate
subject areas like math, reading, and science. Nor is math limited
to formulaic expression. Instead, mathematical patterns occur
in the songs children sing, the books they read, and their charting
of the weather. Geometry and spatial sense are found in the art
children create, the movement games they play, the puzzles they
do, and the models they build. Number is found in the chants
children say, the sports they play, and the scenes they act out.
Throw away dittos and seat work. Doing the “Hokey
Pokey” and making mosaics are ways to explore the mathematical
concept of parts-to-whole, for example. Quilting and charting
weather allow for mathematical pattern exploration. Model building
and classroom obstacle courses allow for opportunities to investigate
mathematical concepts such as and
Math should not be teacher explanation and student rote practice.
Instead, use everyday, hands-on activities and routines to introduce
and develop important mathematical ideas. Carefully plan multi-subject
projects and investigations that build in meaningful practice
of mathematics through discussion, sharing, listening, music,
movement, and visual and artistic expression.
Focus on play as a way to introduce mathematical language,
concepts, and methods.
Play offers rich opportunities for children to develop mathematical
knowledge. Intrinsically motivated children often exhibit persistence
and creativity in problem-solving during play. This problem-solving
translates to the generation and practice of mathematical concepts.
Seek the fun in mathematics. “Fiddling
around” mathematically can be academically and personally
rewarding. Engaging adults and peers in games, challenges, and
problem-solving provides opportunities for pleasurable and satisfying
use of mathematical ideas.
Provide sustained periods that allow children to engage in playful
activities. Enhance play-based mathematical learning by asking
questions that seek clarification, extend thinking, and connect
to past mathematical experiences.
5: Positively change mathematical teaching practice.
Give thought in lesson planning to development of not just skill
but also mathematical attitude. Deliberately build in opportunities
for student success while minimizing the potential for stress
and frustration. Move from rote and rule-based activities to
meaningful and authentic mathematics experiences in everyday
life. In short, make mathematics an important and valued part
of classroom life.
It’s time to break the negative cycle and stop the next
generation from hating math. We as early childhood teachers have
the power to reach this goal.
D.L. 1995. Transforming pedagogy: Classrooms as mathematical
communities. A response to Timothy Lensmire and John Pryor. 65 (4): 670-677.
D.L.; J. Lewis; and M.H. Thames. 2008. Making mathematics work
in school. 14: 13-44.
P. 2002. New York: Rouledge.
M.J. and J. Bisanz. 1995. Anxieties and attitudes related to
mathematics in grades 3 and 6. 63 (2): 139-159.
H.P. 1989. Austin: Pro-Ed.
N.W. and C.J. Daane. 1998. Causes and reduction of math anxiety
in preservice elementary teachers. 19 (4): 29-38.
C.D. and R.J. Leffingwell. 1999. The role of instructors in creating
math anxiety in students from kindergarten through college. 92 (7): 583-600.
G.N. and C. Christou. 1998. The effect of a preparatory mathematics
program in changing prospective teachers’ attitudes towards
mathematics. 35: 189-206.
Smith, S. 2009. New York: Pearson.
S. 1993. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
About the author
Alyse C. Hachey, Ph.D., is associate professor in the teacher education department
at Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York. She
is an educational psychologist whose teaching and research interests focus
on early childhood cognition and curriculum development.
Editor’s note: Two recent articles in Texas Child Care
contain activities in which children learn math concepts. See “Using
symbols to build math skills” in the Summer 2007 issue
and “Money: Learning about dollars and cents” in
the Fall 2007 issue.
Check the index in this issue, or online
for math-related activities such as cooking, making a quilt,
blocks, and puzzles.