Features
October 4, 2022
Who struggles with Maths?

by Lynden Punnett
Dip.SpLD (Dyslexia)

The Ministry of Education is concerned by the disappointing results in Mathematics in the latest CSEC examinations. The Ministry has recognized that an urgent review of teaching methods need to take place and perhaps a rethink in the teacher training of maths and methodology.

Denes Szűcs a Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychology and a Fellow of Darwin College, University of Cambridge concluded that there may be more than just one cause for MLD (Maths Learning Difficulties) by showing that the MLD participants could be divided into two groups in which each had a different type of working memory deficit. One of the two groups with MLD showed poor reading skills and scored poorly on verbal working memory tasks (tasks involving holding in memory and manipulating verbal information). The other group had purer deficits in mathematics and scored poorly on visuospatial working memory tasks (tasks involving holding and manipulating spatial and visual information). This seems to indicate that there could be at least two different causes of MLD, both of which are subtypes of working memory.

This showed that mathematics requires an extensive network of brain activities and that a problem with any one of these could lead to MLD. Since verbal processing seems to be required for the brain to conduct mathematics, underdeveloped verbal processing is another potential cause. In the same way, the brain also seems to use visuospatial processing for mathematics, so a deficit in this area could also lead to MLD.

His research is primarily concerned with mathematical understanding and development, including mathematics anxiety (including gender differences), dyscalculia, and gifted mathematics. Dénes is also very interested in modern research methodology and in the meta-analysis of the published neuroscience and psychology literature.
So who really struggles with maths? There are a number of reasons why a child may be having problems with math at school, from low motivation caused by math anxiety, to a poor understanding of how to apply and perform mathematical operations. But sometimes the root cause of under-performance is something different, like a learning difference or a motor skills difficulty. Math anxiety may cause individuals who are otherwise strong students to freeze on a school quiz or exam.
Numbers are all around us and being able to work with them quickly and efficiently is a great life skill to have.

Note, being fast at arithmetic is also quite practical in many professions, from carpentry to retail, rocket science, and making the buses, trains or planes run on time!

However, math is about much more than arithmetic. A lot of what goes into solving multi-step word problems is identifying the problem, selecting an appropriate approach to solving it (there may be more than one), and following the right order of operations.

Getting the actual arithmetic right – the bit a calculator can do – is something that’s more straightforward. This is one reason why children are asked to show their work when doing homework or providing answers on a math test. In some cases teachers may actually give out more credit for good work than the correct response.
That’s because it is in the long-form, handwritten work that educators can see “math thinking” is taking place.

However, this approach may penalise the very bright child who leaps to the correct solution intuitively but doesn’t analyse how they got there, or the child for whom writing by hand is difficult. Recognising individual students’ needs and strengths is at the core of excellence in teaching.

Math anxiety may cause individuals who are otherwise strong students to freeze on a school quiz or exam.

They can have difficulty finding a way into a problem, misread questions, or complete far fewer problems than they are capable of. In worst-case scenarios, a child may begin to show signs of math avoidance and display a negative attitude toward school and learning as a result of the anxiety.

Math anxiety is not necessarily about being bad at math and it can affect learners across the spectrum of ability levels – even gifted children. Nonetheless it generally results in lower marks that undermine a learner’s confidence. Also keep in mind that for some learners, math anxiety is the result of a history of poor performance due to an unaddressed learning or motor skills difficulty, or gaps in their learning history.

1. Children with dyscalculia

Learners with dyscalculia have trouble doing basic arithmetic and may struggle to learn math facts. As under 5s Dyscalculia can impact on estimation abilities and spatial reasoning too; these students might not be able to read time on clocks, make comparative judgements of size, or identify math symbols. It’s common for dyscalculia to co-present with other specific learning differences, like dyslexia, as well as attention difficulties.
TOP TIP: Calculators are a reasonable adjustment. Because students with dyscalculia may not be able to perform addition, subtraction, multiplication and division calculations reliably, they may need to use a calculator to solve complex math problems.

2. Students with dyslexia

Dyslexia is a different way of processing in the brain which can make it more likely that students flip number and letter shapes, reverse numbers, or mix up their order. For example, copying a multi-digit number from one line to another can result in the student dropping a digit or adding one that wasn’t there. There can also be problems that come from processing written language, as dyslexia affects a child’s ability to hear the sounds that make up words. This complicates reading and can impact on comprehension of word problems.
Students with dyslexia may need to reread a paragraph several times to understand it, they can easily lose their place when doing work out by hand, and may take much more time than their peers to get through the initial stages of understanding a prompt. This will consequently leave them less time to complete the actual math required to find the solution.

3. Individuals with dyspraxia

Dyspraxia can impact on the fine motor skills needed to hold a pen or pencil. Because most long form math is done by hand, dyspraxic students may struggle to show the steps they used to arrive at an answer. They can easily become distracted or frustrated by the pain of handwriting and may be more likely to give up or abandon a question before solving it. Dyspraxia can also affect planning and organizational skills. As solving more complex problems involves a degree of planning as to how you will arrive at the answer, dyspraxic learners may find it difficult to get started.
They can also vwith the sequence of steps and correct order of operations in math.

4. Children with ADD/ADHD

Attention difficulties can affect math skills in a number of ways. For one thing, they make it harder to pay attention in class. Working through a math problem requires you to track multiple steps; the answer to one line informs the next. If a student drifts in and out of attention they might find it very challenging to follow a teacher’s demonstration and understand how a certain number has been derived. Maintaining focus is also a problem for doing work out by hand and checking work once a problem has been completed.