Number blindness

It does not matter how we describe it: mathematics learning difficulties; digit dyslexia; arithmetic learning disabilities… there is a phenomenon affecting an estimated 5% of the population. They have difficulty learning and remembering arithmetic facts. They have problems solving problems that involve calculation. The problem these people encounter with numbers is often masked by another difficulty – for example dyslexia.

Dr Josef Gerstmann first started to investigate and write about the difficulties experienced in learning or comprehending mathematics during the 1940s and the term dyscalculia, meaning ‘counting badly’, was coined about 1949. However, it wasn’t until the mid 1970s that, through the work of Ladislav Kosc, dyscalculia was defined as ‘a structural disorder of mathematical abilities.’

What is dyscalculia? Well, there is a wealth of information out there explaining what it is (and isn’t). Good places to start might be the British Dyslexia Association whose website has a section for dyscalculia – it is widely acknowledged that many dyslexics do have dyscalculia. It is worth noting that there is no causal connection between these two. There is, however, a strong connection between students displaying dyscalculia and (maths) anxiety – this should not come as a surprise. Look also at dyscalculia specific organisations such as DyslexiaScotland.org.uk or the Dyscalculia Information Centre.

As a mathematics teacher I need to recognise that I will come across my share of dyscalculics. Just because a student seems distant, anxious or even lazy, has poor attention, or just generally bad a maths, does not mean that they are dyscalculics – but these traits might mask dyscalculia, some of them may be learned ways that the student copes with their difficulty. It means of course that I have to be very sensitive to these students’ needs and to quietly investigate their computational and processing skills.

Dyscalculia cannot be cured, you do not grow out of it. But, it can be managed, skill sets can be improved, strategies can be learned, attention and working memory can be developed, anxiety can be relieved. It is my job to ensure that students are given back their sense of number, to correct a poor concept of number, to start to acquire in a concrete way those foundation blocks that all other concepts are built upon.

This is not, cannot be, a quick fix. Intervention is not about helping out with homework or repeating lessons on a 1 to 1 basis with a student. It is about identifying the mathematical connections that the student does not have, working to build factual blocks that will allow more cumulative skills to be learned. It could be slow – it will depend when intervention starts.

As I build my awareness of this learning difficulty, my experience of working in 1 to 1 relationship with dyscalculics, and evaluate the success of my intervention, I aim to post occasional updates on my reflections and discoveries.


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