Information Age Education Blog

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Dyscalculia and Learning Math

Dyscalculia is a specific math earning disability involving innate difficulty in learning or comprehending arithmetic. It includes difficulty in understanding numbers, learning how to manipulate numbers, learning math facts, and a number of other related symptoms.

A number of interesting facts about dyscalculia are summarized in a newspaper article by Sharon Noguchi.

The findings are so new that there’s no widely accepted way to diagnose what’s known as dyscalculia, nor any set strategies for coping with it — even though 5 percent to 8 percent of the population is thought to suffer from math learning disability. Consider it the mathematical partner to dyslexia, which impairs reading ability.

But while researchers have explored causes of dyslexia and developed strategies for compensating, the study of dyscalculia lags about 30 years behind. As a result, many people remain stymied by math. And math dysfunction is socially accepted (Noguchi, 10/5/2011).

The article mentions several important research results:

  • Having poor estimation skills (which can be measured even in kindergarten) is an indicator of dyscalculia.
  • Brain imaging studies indicate that children with dyscalculia don’t activate the parietal cortex, which is critical for number processing, in the same way that other children do.
  • It might be that many adults claiming that “I hate math” and “I could never do math” can trace their situation to having had to cope with dyscalculia in their math education.

The same article reports  on a recent survey by Sylvan Learning Corporation that found:

…about one-third of 400 children surveyed would sacrifice a month of video gaming or going on Facebook if they could never have to do algebra again, and 71 percent of 534 parents surveyed think helping kids with algebra is harder than teaching them to drive.

No information is provided as to whether this or unhappiness with algebra is in any way related to dyscalculia. However, this data does suggest that algebra is a major challenge to many students.

Early research on dyscalculia is summarized in an online article by Attridge:

There is evidence that humans and some non-human animals have an innate Approximate Number System (ANS) that allows us to rapidly, but only approximately, represent numerosity. Children and adults appear to use these representations to compare, add and subtract non-symbolic quantities with above-chance accuracy.

Furthermore, it has been suggested that the ANS may be the basis of formal mathematical ability in humans, and a relationship between individual differences in ANS acuity and mathematical ability in children has been demonstrated. Following from this hypothesis, interventions have been designed to strengthen the relationship between ANS representations and symbolic number representations in children, with the hope of improving their mathematics skills (Attridge, et al., n.d.).

Mills (2011) presents more recent research on the detection of dyscalculia as well as the success of computer-based interventions. He also reviews various poorly designed and/or poorly implemented interventions.

Additional research on the number sense and the Approximate Number System is available in the article:

Halberda, Justin and four other authors (2012). "Number sense across the lifespan as revealed by a massive internet-based sample." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Retrieved 5/23/2013 from http://www.pnas.org/content/109/28/11116.full.

The article includes an extensive set of references about dyscalculia, number sense, and ANS.Quoting from the abstract:

Here we find that population trends suggest that the precision of one’s number sense improves throughout the school-age years, peaking quite late at ∼30 y. Despite this gradual developmental improvement, we find very large individual differences in number sense precision among people of the same age, and these differences relate to school mathematical performance throughout adolescence and the adult years. The large individual differences and prolonged development of number sense, paired with its consistent and specific link to mathematics ability across the age span, hold promise for the impact of educational interventions that target the number sense.

Quoting from the article:

The ANS generates nonverbal representations of numerosity in nonhuman animals (4, 5), infants (6, 7), school-aged children (8⇓–10), and adults from mathematically fluent cultures (11, 12) as well as cultures that do not practice explicit mathematics (13, 14). In humans, imaging results suggest that these basic intuitions are supported by neurons in the intraparietal sulcus (15⇓⇓–18), a role that can be observed shortly after birth

What You Can Do

You should be aware that dyscalculia is a major problem for quite a few people. It is one of the contributors to the "I can't do math" syndrome. When you encounter students who seem to have unusual difficulties in math, you should have them tested for dyscalculia. An elementary school classroom of 20-25 students is very apt to have at least one student who has dyscalculia.

Suggested Readings from IAE and Other Publications

You can use Google to search all of the IAE publications. Click here to begin. Then click in the IAE Search box that is provided, insert your search terms, and click on the Search button.

Click here to search the entire collection of IAE Blog entries.

Here are some examples of publications that might interest you:

Creating an appropriate 21st century education: Using computers to translate educational
theory into practice.
See http://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2012-84.html.

Math maturity. See http://iae-pedia.org/Math_Maturity.

Moursund, D. (July, 2012). Using brain/mind science and computers to improve elementary school math education. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Download the PDF file from http://i-a-e.org/downloads/doc_download/239-using-brainmind-science-and-computers-to-improve-elementary-school-math-education.html and the Microsoft Word file from http://i-a-e.org/downloads/doc_download/232-using-brainmind-science-and-computers-to-improve-elementary-school-math-education.html.

Using Artificial Intelligence to create a “fast” autism screening test. See http://www.i-a-e.org/iae-blog/using-artificial-intelligence-to-create-a-fast-autism-screening-test.html.

References

Attridge, N., et al. (n.d.). Reliability of measuring the approximate number system (ANS). Retrieved 2/8/2012 from http://mec.lboro.ac.uk/mcg/usa/EPS_Nottinghamposter.pdf.

Mills, D. (2011). Math learning difficulties: Dyscalculia. Retrieved 2/8/2012 from http://www.dyscalculiatreatment.com/.

Noguchi, S. (10/5/2011). Don't get math? Researchers home in on the brain's problem. San Jose Mercury News. Retrieved 1/23/2012 from http://www.toledoblade.com/Education/2011/10/17/Don-t-get-math-Researchers-home-in-on-the-brain-s-problem.html.

 

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Comments

David Moursund (website) on Tuesday, 11 June 2013 00:56
Dyscalculia is only part of the math education problem.

Written by David Moursund, January 24, 2012.

If 5 to 8 percent of students have dyscalculia, how do we explain the much larger number of students who struggle with math and as adults indicate, "I hate math" and "just can't do math?"

My conjecture is that the level of abstraction inherent to math and the rapid push in math instruction into this abstraction means that many students are taught math that is well above their level of cognitive development. Perhaps it this difference between content-learning expectations and cognitive development level that is giving teachers and student so much grief in our current math education system.

Written by David Moursund, January 24, 2012. If 5 to 8 percent of students have dyscalculia, how do we explain the much larger number of students who struggle with math and as adults indicate, "I hate math" and "just can't do math?" My conjecture is that the level of abstraction inherent to math and the rapid push in math instruction into this abstraction means that many students are taught math that is well above their level of cognitive development. Perhaps it this difference between content-learning expectations and cognitive development level that is giving teachers and student so much grief in our current math education system.
David Moursund (website) on Tuesday, 11 June 2013 00:56
Dyscalculia is only part of the math education problem.

Written by David Moursund, January 24, 2012.

If 5 to 8 percent of students have dyscalculia, how do we explain the much larger number of students who struggle with math and as adults indicate, "I hate math" and "just can't do math?"

My conjecture is that the level of abstraction inherent to math and the rapid push in math instruction into this abstraction means that many students are taught math that is well above their level of cognitive development. Perhaps it this difference between content-learning expectations and cognitive development level that is giving teachers and student so much grief in our current math education system.

Written by David Moursund, January 24, 2012. If 5 to 8 percent of students have dyscalculia, how do we explain the much larger number of students who struggle with math and as adults indicate, "I hate math" and "just can't do math?" My conjecture is that the level of abstraction inherent to math and the rapid push in math instruction into this abstraction means that many students are taught math that is well above their level of cognitive development. Perhaps it this difference between content-learning expectations and cognitive development level that is giving teachers and student so much grief in our current math education system.
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