A danger: how damaging stigma can appear in mathematics?

Tshogofatso discusses how damaging stigma can be in mathematics and how important it is that educators and parents help remove this perception of the subject.

Illustration by Nino Mekanarishvili

No information gets wired into your brain unless you get it from somewhere! We would not know that the product of two and nine is equivalent to eighteen if no one taught us multiplication.

Many of us have different experiences with mathematics. Some may say it is fun and easy and some may say it is hard, and made their school life miserable. But mostly mathematics is labelled as the hardest subject, and because of that, when we cannot solve for x, we tend to give up, because we are told that mathematics is hard.

The reality is that mathematics is a part of our daily life, but as soon as it is being taught to us as a subject we tend to change our perception towards it, and attach different stigmas to it. The lie that people tell each other is that only people with high IQ’s can do mathematics. Some have been discouraged from testing their abilities to do mathematics because they have been told that mathematics is “not for you”, whereas others went into the wrong stream of studying because of the stigma attached to mathematics. 

A time in my life where negative mathematics stigmas shook my academic life was when I transitioned from primary school to high school. It was quite difficult and a turning point in my life, when I had to decide to define my academic ability based on negative mathematics stigmas or vow to succeed against all odds. It is quite normal to struggle at the beginning of high school because one must adapt and get out of the comfort zone of primary school. But stigmas are already positioned to work against your adaptation and academic ability, you doubt yourself before even starting. Examples of stigmatization of mathematics are: “Expect to see your marks decrease drastically” and “High school mathematics is difficult and you will fail it”.

I loved mathematics and I was always present in class, listened attentively, took notes, and did all my homework.  However, in the first term of high school my grades fell from over 80% in primary school to a disappointing 50%-59%. Little did I know that the bigger disappointment was waiting for me in the second term. My academic life was proving the stigmas right, though my attitude towards mathematics did not change, I still had the belief that I can do well in mathematics. I decided to ignore the stigmas but my grades for mathematics never got higher than 60% throughout the year.

The following year we had a new grade and a new syllabus and the challenges got bigger and just as the stigmatization had predicted, my grades for mathematics fell to below 50%. We had a good mathematics teacher and he always motivated us to practice every day, but in the first two terms, my marks were still terrible. The stigmas around mathematics focus on how terribly you will perform and make you to lose hope and accept your terrible grades. They never encourage students to challenge the stigmas and find out what they might be doing wrong. At the beginning of the third term, I decided to reflect and have an honest conversation with myself. I thought I was doing the right things but nothing was working, so my priority was to find out what I was doing wrong. No goal, lack of motivation, ignorance, bad time-management, and inconsistent practice were my biggest problems. Loving mathematics, having a good attitude towards your studies, and not giving up because of negative stigmas are not enough, more decisive actions needed to be taken.

Illustration by Liani Malherbe

I equipped myself with ambition, became a pro at time management, removed all distractions, and prioritized my academic studies. I started to write down my academic goals. My goal was to achieve 80%+ in mathematics and other subjects so that I could qualify to study Engineering/Medicine/CA and to reach that goal, I had to believe that I had the potential to do so and must work hard for it. My top three career choices became my daily motivation to work hard. I consistently practiced and paid attention to common mistakes I made when answering exam questions. I used multiple sources to practice, asked questions where I did not understand and always checked for alternatives to solving problems. I worked diligently from that term and my hard work paid off. My mathematics percentage throughout my school life from that term on were in the range of 70%-100% and every year, in a new grade I looked forward to the challenges and conquering the material. My love for mathematics made it easier for me to challenge the negative stigmas even though I was struggling. Never allow stigmas to define your academic ability and always have goals that challenge you.

Parents and Educators play a vital role in modelling and demonstrating effective learning in students, and instilling a positive mindset and building students’ self-confidence in academic pursuits. 

Parents should be supportive of their kids and offer any kind of help they can, even if they have no mathematics background and may be unable to assist with homework. They should always tell their kids they can do anything they want, encourage their kids to ask the teacher when they do not understand something. Get a tutor if you can afford it. They must create a positive environment that nourishes healthy emotional well-being – our potential to concentrate and be present in our work is dependent on that. Lastly, do not put any pressure on your children, and never instill any negative stigma of mathematics.  

Educators should also be accountable for removing negative stigmas attached to mathematics.. Words like “The failure rate of mathematics has been very high over the past years” should not be used to motivate a new group of learners, I think it creates an expectation of failure and opens the door to self-doubt. Sometimes using ambiguous words as a way to encourage learners only scare them off. A positive learning environment is important. Educators should encourage students to have academic self-confidence and encourage group work and always assist their students, and have frequent tests for checking progress and understanding. They should create an open space where students can voice their struggles and be willing to assist and never define a student’s potential based on statistics. 

It is not about driving everyone into a mathematics career, because we all have unique ambitions, dreams, aspirations, and different career choices. It is about making mathematics neutral – removing the stigma attached to mathematics and making it more like your mother tongue.  

Our potential to do anything should not be restricted by stigma!

Tshogofatso Brigette Lope

Chemical Engineering undergraduate,

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