I love math, but I know that I’m unusual. Math anxiety is a rampant problem across the country. Researchers now know that when people with math anxiety encounter numbers, a fear center in the brain lights up — the same fear center that lights up when people see snakes or spiders. Anxiety is not limited to low-achieving students. Many of the undergraduates I teach at Stanford University, some of the most successful students in the nation, are math traumatized. In recent interviews, students have told me that learning math in school was like being on a “hamster wheel” — they felt like they were running and running, without reaching any meaningful destination. A seventh grader told me that math learning was like prison, because his mind felt “locked up.”
The problem is the performance culture in our schools, more present in math than in any other subject.