Bridges4Kids Logo

 
Home ] What's New ] Contact Us ] About Us ] Links ] Search ] Glossaries ] Contact Legislators ] Reviews ] Downloads ] Disabilities ] IDEA ] Special Education ] Medicaid/SSI ] Childcare/Respite ] Wraparound ] Insurance ] PAC/SEAC ] Ed Reform ] Literacy ] Community Schools ] Children At-Risk ] Section 504 ] School Climate/Bullying ] Parenting/Adoption ] Home Schooling ] Community Living ] Health & Safety ] Summer Camp ] Kids & Teens ] College/Financial Aid ] Non-Public & Other Schools ] Legal Research ] Court Cases ] Juvenile Justice ] Advocacy ] Child Protective Services ] Statistics ] Legislation ] Ask the Attorney ]
 
 Where to find help for a child in Michigan, Anywhere in the U.S., or Canada
 
Bridges4Kids is now on Facebook. Follow us today!
 
Last Updated: 10/31/2017
 

Article of Interest - Mathematics

Printer-friendly Version

Bridges4Kids LogoTrying to Figure Out Why Math Is So Hard for Some
Theories Abound: Genetics, Gender, How It's Taught
by Valerie Strauss, The Washington Post, December 2, 2003
For more articles like this visit http://www.bridges4kids.org

 

Three little words -- "math is hard" -- uttered a decade ago by Teen Talk Barbie drew enough protests of sexism that its maker, Mattel Inc., pulled the doll from stores.

But researchers today say Barbie wasn't all wrong: Math is hard for many -- male and female, children and adults. And while a "math gene" has not been discovered, experts say that early school-age boys and girls tend to approach the subject differently, influenced by biological, environmental and educational factors.

So why, despite this year's fanfare over SAT scores reaching a 30-year high, does math still stump so many?

"That's the question we are all asking and that is driving the research," said Michelle Mazzocco, director of the Math Skills Development Project at Baltimore's Kennedy Krieger Institute, a clinical and research facility for pediatric developmental disabilities.

"There could be so many different causes leading to what we call poor math achievement and math disability, which are not necessarily the same thing," she said. "It has taken researchers decades to understand the fundamental difficulties of reading, and we are now at the place with math research where reading researchers were 20, 30 years ago."

Some say that learning math is similar to tackling a foreign language; others say it is different from all other subjects, because math is abstract and requires more logical and ordered thinking. There are battles over how to teach it, dissension over gender issues, questions about the causes of poor student performance, and no universal definition for "math learning disability," known as discalculia.

What is known is that math is hierarchical, so that "if you hit a hurdle somewhere along the way, it's tough to catch up," said Julie Sanders, a math teacher at Episcopal High School, a private school in Alexandria.

Yet researchers are only beginning to grasp why someone such as Mike Zaydman, a senior at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, seems to be a natural -- completing advanced calculus last year and now having a "pretty good time" with multivariable calculus/differential equations -- while Lesley Ann Hecht, a junior at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has always struggled with math.

Hecht was diagnosed with a math learning disability after she had trouble figuring out multiplication tables as a child in Avon, Conn. She recalls working harder than other students to earn a B in high school geometry, but her problems didn't end there. She nearly had to drop her psychology major in college because it required taking a math test, which she failed. After retaking the test with approved special help, she passed.

Hecht, who excels in others subjects, attributes her math difficulties to genetics, anxiety and poor teaching. But she doesn't think she is any worse at math than some friends who were never diagnosed. "I really don't see myself as having a disability," she said. "I just think I'm not good at math."

Mazzocco and other researchers say they don't know at what point difficulty with math becomes a learning disability. There is no specially designed test for diagnosis, and estimates about how many children have discalculia range from 5 percent to 8 percent.

But one thing is clear, said David C. Geary, a researcher and psychology professor at the University of Missouri: The human brain is not designed to accept math easily.

"Much of what kids are expected to learn has been developed in the past 1,000 to 2,000 years, sometimes much more recently, and thus people's brains aren't really designed to learn much of it -- except, for instance basic counting and simple arithmetic," Geary said. "Language, including foreign languages if they are introduced early enough, is a completely different matter, as the brain is pre-wired to learn this."

New neuroimaging techniques are making clearer how different areas of the brain are tapped for various visually and linguistically based mathematical tasks, which helps explain the ways someone can trip over math. Fact retrieval appears to be the most common type of problem for elementary school students, for instance, and spatial difficulties may interfere with geometry learning, researchers say.

JoAnn Deak, a psychologist and author of "Girls Will Be Girls: Raising Confident and Courageous Daughters," said most schools approach math in the early grades "as if there is one kind of brain" -- though neuroimaging suggests that most girls develop language skills faster and most boys develop spatial and visual abilities faster. This helps explain why boys traditionally have been seen as "better at math," and why some girls have steered away from it.

Different teaching approaches early in a child's life can make up for these gender differences, Deak said, but most teachers don't try.

Researcher Art Baroody, a professor of curriculum and instruction in early childhood and elementary mathematics education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said he is "willing to bet the ranch" that the primary culprit for students' math struggles is poor instruction.

"Children with genuine organic dysfunction probably make up a small portion of the children struggling with math, or even of those labeled 'learning disabled,' " Baroody said. As for whether it is ever too late to learn math, he said: "It is probably never too late, if the spirit has not been broken."

That underscores the fierce battles over how to teach the subject; a nearly 2,000-page history of school mathematics, recently published by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, details decades of conflict with different eras of math instruction.

Applause recently sounded when U.S. math scores rose on the National Assessment of Education Progress, often called "the nation's report card," coming on the heels of last summer's SAT results. Johnny Lott, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, said he credits reform math programs that help children learn by finding the meaning of problems themselves rather than learning by rote memorization.

Others, including W. Stephen Wilson, a Johns Hopkins University math professor, believe that those programs confuse as many students as they help and that rising test scores are unrelated.

Anthony Belber, a third-grade teacher at the private Georgetown Day School in the District, said some children are asked to learn concepts before they are developmentally ready. He still remembers, he said, "that panicky feeling about math, always trying to get by and never really understanding what I was doing" while attending St. Albans School in the District.

"Kids are sometimes exposed to things a year or two years before they are ready," said Belber, who noted that he didn't fully become comfortable with math until he started teaching. "If they start thinking they aren't good in a topic because it is too soon, they are always behind."

    

back to the top     ~     back to Breaking News     ~     back to What's New

 

Thank you for visiting http://www.bridges4kids.org/.
 

bridges4kids does not necessarily agree with the content or subject matter of all articles nor do we endorse any specific argument.  Direct any comments on articles to deb@bridges4kids.org.

 

2002-2017 Bridges4Kids