Dyscalculia, or Mathematical Learning Disabilities, is a specific learning disability which affects about 3-6% of the population. Individuals with dyscalculia struggle with mathematics despite being intelligent and getting the same kind of instruction as their peers in school. The research so far has pointed to the workings of or lack of neural pathways that cause this disability. Dyscalculia is lifelong but parents start noticing it when their children fall behind their peers in school, develop anxiety and dislike for the subject. If not given specialist help this lack of numeracy affects their science and mathematics in secondary school which in this day and age curtails their career options. Today’s research informs us that the brain is capable of many changes for the better and that it can be ‘trained’, especially during childhood. The emphasis here as with reading problems is to get early intervention to prevent school failure and low self-esteem. Dyslexia programmes have been successful in overcoming reading problems and it is the same with mathematics disabilities.
(Credit to Dr Anna J. Wilson of the University of Canterbury, New Zealand who researches Dyscalculia)
How does all this play out in the Singapore School System?
The Singapore school syllabus covers an immense amount of mathematics concepts in a short space of time. The effect is a lack of time to lay foundations on which mathematical skills are built. For example, many of my students up to Primary 4 do not know values of quantities, which in turn, is confusing when they work in columns for the four operations.
Maths is interesting only if it is made meaningful in daily life…..
There is little in-school time to put into meaningful practice, interesting concepts like area and perimeter. Hence learning holds no relevance to students if the main aim of learning is to pass exams. Much of those who pass have an excellent memory for procedural work. They memorise everything the teacher wrote on the board and reproduce the sequence every time they come across a similar question. There is very little creative or cognitive problem-solving skill involved. For most students, this is fine, but more intelligent children need to understand what they are doing before they carry out any mathematical operation. There are also those who like to think through the process sequentially and understand the work before they can replicate it. As the school year progresses and more topics are added and the memory bank becomes saturated. Those who have been copying without understanding get very muddled and make careless mistakes or omit steps.