1 Some issues with learning mathematics – ‘mathematical trauma’

‘Mathematical trauma’ sounds rather dramatic. However, more and more research provides evidence that points to students experiencing real, distressing trauma while studying mathematics. It may seem easy to dismiss or ignore, and say ‘Well, they just don’t get it’, or ‘They should study harder and practise more’. But there are real reasons to believe that this trauma is what is stopping people using mathematics in later life, with many negative consequences to them and to society as a whole.

Mathematical trauma may come from students feeling and believing that they should not and cannot act or think for themselves when learning mathematics. Lange and Meaney (2011) describe mathematical trauma as: ‘being deprived of opportunities for expression, interpretation and agency in relation to mathematics, and hence positioned as passive receivers of superficial mathematical knowledge amounts’.

Mathematical trauma can have serious consequences for those students who are affected. They may reject mathematics as something that they are not able to do. They may get into a spiral of self-fulfilling prophecies because the moment they cannot make sense of an area in mathematics, they believe it is because they simply do not ‘get it’ and they will never be capable of doing so. This can also affect their belief in themselves as being capable in other areas of mathematics. They begin to feel they have no choice or control. This is also known as ‘having no agency’.

One of the triggers for mathematical trauma is the language of mathematics itself. This is both the symbolic representation and mathematical vocabulary, which can seem very alien and hard to connect to existing language knowledge and structures.

What you can learn in this unit

2 Issues with learning about operations on fractions