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Finding a cure for the ‘number’ phobia

This year’s board exam results give us reasons to celebrate.  At the same time, we are compelled to engage ourselves in some deep soul-searching.  We had the best class XII result in eight years with a pass percentage of 89.38.  But this year’s class X result is the worst in eight years.  About 30 percent of the students failed in mathematics, which means some 5,972 students missed the 61 percent cut-off point.

While there is a small comfort that there are many private schools, they have their limitations too.  Not all 5,972 students, who did not make the 61 percent pass aggregate, will find seats in private higher secondary schools in the country, which means that many will have to enter the job market at a time when youth unemployment is close to 10 percent.  This is an expensive affair for many parents and students.

Among the subjects, Mathematics has always been a problem with Bhutanese students.  It would be interesting and worth our while to find out why students find this subject particularly difficult.  Mathematics is one of the key subjects that students need to do well in to qualify for higher secondary education, which is why we need to get to the root and bone of the problem.

Teachers say that fear of the subject among many students is one of the main reasons that affect their performance.  Mathematical anxiety, feelings of tension and anxiety that interfere with manipulation of numbers and solving of numerical problems, is found to be widely prevalent among Bhutanese students.

But fear or anxiety of a subject just don’t arise and lodge in a student’s mind.  It has to come from somewhere.  Researchers have found that students develop mathematical anxiety in school, often as a result of learning from teachers.  If teachers are themselves anxious about their mathematical abilities, his or her fears and lack of understanding naturally get passed to students.

Also, the way Mathematics is taught in our classrooms should take the blame.  Mathematics instruction should provide opportunities for concept building, reasoning and problem solving, among others.  It should give the learners a bird’s eye view of problems and concepts.  Perhaps the problems arise and the subject become difficult because students are taught a “right” way to solve a problem, and that all other approaches are “wrong”.

We have seen the trend.  There must be something going about that makes the subject difficult and fearful for students.  We need to find out and think about new adjustments that will encourage our children to embrace the subject and excel in it.


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One comment

  1. It may be considered highly debatable, but study of mathematics has become a science practiced only in isolation where practitioners get a bit cut off from the real world applications. If a young school student finds it all right to apply mathematics in the study of physics or chemistry or even biology; it’s the application of mathematics in the study of mathematics that becomes a problem. Probably we are forcing young minds to learn mathematics as a process rather than as a scientific method to be applied. Students are taught geometry without any interest in the study of shape and size or they are forced to fear algebra without any reasons to fix broken parts perfectly to give it the right shape. The reasons for teaching mathematics as a separate subject in the study of science need be explained to the students so that they can relate a lot more to the subject. I am not very sure about today’s time; but in my schools days, many from my class who disliked mathematics went to study medicine or surgery. Many of us knew the use of arithmetic science, but not very sure about what to do with other mathematical applications at a school level. Practical application of mathematics at school level still remains restricted to our abilities to imagine numbers and then calculate like a calculating device does. Students fear mathematics because they think they will get the calculations wrong and that’s probably not the psychological definition of a scientific study of matter. We are not teaching how mathematics can communicate in the study of science and engineering and even commerce where numbers alone are without any meaningful expressions.

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