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
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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
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
"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
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
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
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."
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