Let's Replace Math Phobia with
Building Math Capacity
By Jaine Kopp
As an advocate over the past 30 years for a mathematically literate society, I am disappointed that I still
hear mathematics maligned by so many otherwise intelligent people. In my work with elementary school teachers,
for example, too many report that they were "never any good at math" or that "math never made any sense." Not
only do they talk that way about their own math educations; they use their lack of understanding as an excuse
to teach out of the textbook, with little thought about the lessons they present. Many find it easier to fall
back on rules and procedures ("When dividing a fraction by another fraction, invert and multiply") than to
teach for conceptual understanding.
My experience is echoed in an early 1990s study by Julian Weissglass,* in which math teachers were asked to
speculate about the beliefs and values underlying their teaching. From a long list, these commonly expressed
beliefs help paint the picture:
• It is all right not to be good in math.
• Math is difficult, and students need to be told what to do.
• People learn by listening and doing homework.
• Mathematics is developed linearly.
• Practice makes perfect.
These views and opinions are not limited to educators; they are echoed in society at large. The comic strip
Calvin and Hobbes was famous for its amusing jabs at mathematics. Each time Calvin "freaked out" after
realizing that math is a part of real life, the humor reflected a universal experience.
When I am introduced as a math educator, I get a variety of responses. Some people stare in disbelief at a
woman for whom math was apparently stimulating rather than intimidating. Others "confess" that they barely made
it through math or that it was the most difficult subject they ever took. I hear about high school teachers who
wrote tirelessly on the board without explanation, or about the never-forgotten embarrassment of "freezing"
when called on in math class. For those who suffer from math phobia, these hours spent struggling and feeling
unsuccessful have left a false impression of what mathematics is. They have never felt the excitement math can
engender when presented in creative, thought-provoking ways.
I like to believe that one day the reputation mathematics has acquired will change, that math literacy will
become as valued as reading and writing literacy. I further hope that math will be appreciated for its beauty
as well as its utility. After all, one need not understand the intricate mixing of oil paints or the scientific
reasons for flower coloration to appreciate the beauty of a painting or a rose. So, too, with math.
The question then becomes, How can the image of mathematics be transformed? Where can educators, families, and
society go to explore, build their confidence, and learn to appreciate mathematics?
One answer is science centers. You can do math without science, but you cannot do science without math or its
tools. That is why, at the University of California-Berkeley's Lawrence Hall of Science (LHS), we have
endeavored to make mathematics an integral part of the museum and its programs.
As soon as visitors walk into LHS, giant-sized games from around the world invite them to play. Young and old
together use patterns, logic, and reasoning to develop strategies and solve problems. Nearby, an entire
exhibition, Math Rules, is designed to engage visitors interactively with pattern, geometry, and
discrete mathematics. Activities like What's the Scoop?, which draws the parallel between permutations and the
structure of DNA, and Shape Up!, which connects shape patterns to diatoms, move away from the traditional view
of mathematics as computation to link math directly with science.
LHS also offers workshops that allow children and parents to do math together through activities like measuring
a T. rex footprint and comparing it to their own. In summer, the Wednesday Fun Days include days focused on
mathematics. The Family Math project has created resources for families to use at home with kids from
preschool to middle school; its workshops for school and community leaders also promote family involvement with
In 1999, LHS and UC's Berkeley Botanical Gardens collaborated on a project that uses the garden as the context
for presenting and reviewing math concepts and skills. Designed for children aged 5 to 12, Math in the
Garden accommodates a range of adult leaders, from the math whiz to the scout leader who last took math in
high school. The response from participants has been enthusiastic. Said one parent, "[The program]...was fun,
easy to follow, and helped to answer that age-old question, 'When will I ever use this?'"
These are some of the steps LHS is taking to put math's best foot forward with the public. It will take a more
collective social effort, however, to change entrenched perceptions. A key element of that effort is the
mathematics education our children receive.
Because schools have the responsibility of helping students to acquire the math skills and tools they will need
to approach and solve problems in real life, it is crucial that we support math educators. Science centers have
the opportunity, through our teacher education programs, to create a positive image of mathematics and
emphasize its importance. Let's open the doors of our science centers to teachers, as well as to students and
families, and invite everyone to be part of a new trendmath for all, and all for math!
Jaine Kopp is
director of the Bay Area Mathematics Project at the Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California,
Berkeley. For more on math opportunities at LHS, visit www.lawrencehallofscience.org.
* Weissglass, Julian. "Changing the Culture of Mathematics Instruction." In Journal of Mathematical Behavior, Vol. 11, No. 2 (November 1992).