Kids with dyscalculia, like dyslexia for numbers, struggle to learn maths. Surendra Verma examines dyscalculia and maths anxiety, another common cause of poor performance in maths, and the relationship between the two.
People with dyslexia have a hard time with written words: they might read ‘car park’ as ‘par cark’ or write ‘cough’ as ‘koff’. People with dyscalculia have hard time with numbers: they put two and two together and make five, literally.
Unlike dyslexia, dyscalculia is less well known. When people with dyscalculia add, subtract, multiply or divide numbers their results are not always consistent. They have a genuine lack of feel for comparing and estimating numbers; for some, even understanding whether 15 is greater than 12 is burdensome.
Their lack of grasp of numbers makes it difficult for them to do everyday things such as shopping, counting change, budgeting and even being fans of sports where an understanding of scores is crucial.
And estimates are dyscalculia—sometimes called ‘number blindness’—affects up to eight per cent of the population, about as many people as are affected by dyslexia. Yet, research on dyscalculia is 30 years behind the research on dyslexia.
Researchers define dyscalculia in many different ways, but all these definitions have in common: (1) it’s a specific learning disorder; that is, it lacks across-the-board learning difficulties; and (2) it affects the ability to acquire school-level arithmetic skills, which must be quantifiably below what is expected for an individual’s chronological age, and not caused by poor educational or daily activities or by intellectual impairment.
Any definition of dyscalculia is meaningless to teachers and parents of primary school children unless they know the typical symptoms of dyscalculia. However, as there is very little research on dyscalculia, there is no definitive list of symptoms, according to Anna J. Wilson, dyscalculia and mathematical cognition researcher at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.
In brief, children with dyscalculia have: (1) weak mental arithmetic skills; (2) difficulty in remembering simple addition, subtraction, multiplication and division facts—even as simple as adding 10 and 15; (3) difficulty when counting backwards; (4) poor sense of number and estimation; and (5) no sense whether their answers are right or nearly right.
For example, they would have difficulty comparing two numbers (which is bigger, 7 or 9?). However, if, say number 3 is printed in a distinctly larger font than number 8, they can easily answer, which is taller? This is one of the tests used to determine whether a child’s problem with numbers is due to dyscalculia or to other cognitive deficits.
Children with dyscalculia would also have difficulty in estimating the numbers in a group. In another test used to determine the problem with numbers, when children are shown a random pattern of large dots on a paper, children with dyscalculia take longer than others to count the dot pattern. Most children instantly recognise patterns of up to four dots, whereas children with dyscalculia tend to count the dots one by one.
Brain-imaging studies now show that dyscalculia is caused in some way by brain dysfunction that affects the acquisition of arithmetic skills in an otherwise-normal child. This different mode of brain wiring cannot be prevented or cured and doesn’t go away over time. In most cases children with dyscalculia will not grow out of dyscalculia.
Nonetheless, neuroplasticity reminds us that our brains are very adaptable, especially during childhood. The way early intervention can help correct anomalies in brain activity in children with dyslexia, the same is likely to be possible for dyscalculia in the near future.
UK neuropsychologist Brian Butterworth, the author of The Mathematical Brain and a world-renowned authority on dyscalculia, has spent decades studying the condition. He is now 72, but as determined as ever to develop strategies to help children with dyscalculia.
In a report in the journal Nature, he is quoted as saying that in the course of his studies on dyscalculia, he was struck that children ‘were very, very distressed by being bad at maths. So every day they would go to school, every day there’s a maths class. Every day they’re shown up to be incompetent in a way other kids in their class are not.’
No wonder children with dyscalculia have high levels of maths anxiety. Generally speaking, people with maths anxiety, or maths fear, can master mathematical concepts but tend to avoid maths and performs poorly than their abilities allow. A study at the University of Haifa in Israel concludes that there is a direct link between dyscalculia and maths anxiety and dyscalculia might be used as an indirect measure of maths anxiety.
Interestingly, a University of Chicago study has discovered that when primary school teachers have maths anxiety, maths achievement, measured at the end of the school year, was worse for girls but not for boys. The researchers say that having a highly maths-anxious female teacher pushes girls to conform to the stereotypes that they are not as good as boys at maths, which, in turn, affects girls’ maths achievement.
Other studies have also shown that common negative stereotype that girls aren’t good at mathematics hurts girls’ achievement in maths. It’s well proven that awareness of broadly held negative stereotypes that others hold about the groups to which we belong can undermine learning and performance.
Stereotype threat blocks the path to learning by making students anxious. When we are tackling a problem, say an algebra equation, the brain processes the information through the amygdala, the almond-shaped region of the brain responsible for emotions. The amygdala then prioritises it to go through the prefrontal cortex, the ‘decision-making’ region responsible for memory and critical thinking. When we are under stress there is more activity in the amygdala than in the prefrontal cortex. Thus, even minor anxiety can block a student’s ability to respond.
Primary school teachers are best positioned to diagnose dyscalculia among their students, but if they have a fear of maths (sadly, not a trait rare among this cohort), maths could remain a mystery for many children. Shouldn’t maths-anxious teachers be advised not to teach maths?
© Surendra Verma 2016