More problems with maths

I recently assessed a 9-year old boy who was having severe problems with maths. He was just about hanging on to some motivation in school. The time I spent with him, doing low-key diagnostic work, was very tiring for him. To his credit he did not let that tiredness create irritation with me, just polite withdrawal.

I hate to see children who are so low about maths, their ability to experience any success in the subject and the pervasive impact of a loss in self-worth and self-belief which often spreads to other subjects as well. Inevitably those are the children who end up spending diagnostic time with me.

Maybe I felt so sad about this because the boy, and his Mum, were so keen to do better, trying to generate low stress expectations, yet with such a sense of helplessness as to what to do. I knew the school had lost him, that they were setting inappropriate work and that they were making his situation worse. I also knew that this downward trend was going to continue and that finally, the move to secondary school was likely to complete the process of total withdrawal and maths depression.

A disturbing thing for me was that the key issues for this boy are the key issues for so many other pupils in primary schools. So, what can be done to address and reduce the problem?

First, let's look at four of those key issues:

  • A poor short-term memory
  • A poor working memory
  • A poor long-term memory for basic facts and procedures coupled with no efficient ways to compensate
  • A slow speed of working (compared to 'normal' expectations).

The reality is that there are no drugs and no magic interventions to address these issues directly. We can't inject these children with some magic medication that will, for example, improve their working memory. There are no quick cures. So, we must turn to the way maths is taught. This we can change, but there are many resilient barriers. However, I do think that the rewards would be significant. By making the instruction more cognisant of the way children learn, and fail to learn, maybe schools will stop applying a 'one belief suits all' philosophy.

It would be my experience, and the wisdom of many researchers, that we teachers can learn so much about effective teaching by studying the 'outliers'. What works for the children who find maths difficult will work for many, many more pupils, partly because when working with this population we do not assume that what we tell or explain will be absorbed instinctively.

If the key issues that create maths difficulties cannot be addressed by direct intervention, then we should modify the way we present the work so that it becomes accessible to as many children as is possible.

I think I should explain that I write these observations from decades of teaching children with special needs, particularly dyslexia. I have written much about what I have found that works for children and why it works (for example, ‘The Trouble with Maths’, 3rd edition and ‘Mathematics for Dyslexics and Dyscalculics. A Teaching Handbook.’ 4th edn) and on how using maths to teach maths reduces the load on long term memory for seemingly isolated facts and procedures. My website shows how I use visual images alongside the maths symbols to help understanding and to act as the central core of teaching maths in a developmental way. So, through such work I have tried to explain how teaching maths can be made more mindful of the learner. It's a tad too complicated to address in one article, but just telling maths is not enough.

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