What looks like a struggle with math may actually be a deficiency in the underlying cognitive processes required to compute math problems.
Bring up the topic of math to a group of adults and you will hear the predictable number of groans. But ask the same adults about the importance of math in today’s world, and they will all agree that it’s a critical skill for every student to have. We all acknowledge that math is difficult but essential. For the child who struggles with a learning difference, the difficulties with math are amplified.
Four kids and a math problem
In order to teach math responsively, we must first acknowledge the actual neuro-developmental demands that math places on a student. It is not useful to speak in terms of a student being good or bad at math. Four students may get the same problem wrong, but for four completely different reasons. The first student may understand the process perfectly, but make a simple fact error. The next may understand the process, but has working memory deficits that prevent keeping the problem’s individual steps in mind long enough to apply them. The third may inaccurately transcribe on paper the correct number he is holding in his mind. The fourth student may not understand the concept underlying the problem. To address their errors, each of these students needs a different approach to teaching, which requires an awareness of the many neuro-developmental processes required for successful math performance, as well as how learning differences can cause those processes to break down.
Math and the brain
Stanislas Dehaene, in Origins of Mathematical Intuitions suggests that humans, and some animals, are born with a sense of magnitude or quantity that is hard-wired into the brain, which permits quick evaluation of about how many objects are in a scene, whether this number is more or less than another, and how this number is changed by simple addition and subtraction. This system in action has been observed in infants as young as four months. It is a general sense, though, not exact computation. To calculate, humans have developed an abstract system of numerals that maps onto this built-in sense of quantity, each function probably being represented by separate brain systems. As children get older, they move from an intuitive sense of quantity, to a more formal system of ordered numbers, which requires a much more complicated set of neuro-processes to be brought to bear.
Mel Levine, author of A Mind at a Time and other books on learning differences, identifies many of the brain’s processes that math requires:
The writing on the wall
All the teachers interviewed agreed that classroom walls should be used as space to convey the most important information of the classroom. Hanging the students’ work on the walls lets them know they are important and valued, and gives them ownership of their work and the classroom space. Having the students brainstorm and then write the list of classroom rules for the wall also gives them ownership of their behavior. However, it’s worth noting that the walls can become too “busy” and can create visual confusion and chaos. Teachers say, “Less is more,” when it comes to classroom walls. The information posted should be well-organized and easy to read. What is on the walls should have value to the learning experience and serve a clear purpose. Important items to include may be a list of learned words or a “word wall,” rules and expectations, class schedules and current student projects.
Seating flexibility and structure
When teaching a classroom full of students with diverse learning styles, teachers know that a strict seating plan doesn’t work. It is not always automatic that a child with attention issues needs to be seated front-and-center. Sometimes a child may need to sit in the back row or in an area that offers less distractions and more room to spread out. Recent studies show that some students learn better when being allowed to stand at their desks as they work. For example, my daughter, Leah, concentrates better while half-standing at her desk. When her kindergarten teacher continued to bring up this “problem” at conferences, my response was “Is this an awful thing? If she isn’t disturbing the other students, and it’s helping her to learn, please let her continue.”
The teacher realized it was more important to accommodate Leah than to enforce a “rule” that was counterproductive to learning.
Other students may use small lap desks that can be taken to the floor or out into the hall. Flexibility and creativity create a space that appeals to all students. Secluded areas in the room (centers) for individuals or small groups of students can provide a customized learning space that accommodates different learning styles. Some teachers have the resources to place a variety of seating options in their classrooms. Rocking chairs, bean bag chairs, cube or lounge chairs, or wedge cushions all contribute to the ability of the classroom to accommodate the learner.
The “ideal” classroom…
Lighting, color, music, visually appealing walls, separate areas for various activities, opportunity for movement and flexibility in the room all work together to create a classroom most conducive to learning! Combine these elements with classroom teachers who are excited about what they’re teaching, and you have a learning environment that nurtures the whole child – socially, emotionally and academically.
Ursula Daniels reminds us that “teaching is not about the four walls. You have to think about how to use other spaces available to you. Wherever they [our students] need to learn and grow, we need to be able to go there.” This philosophy can also be applied as “however” our kids learn. We need to be willing, as teachers and parents, to “go there” and acknowledge and respect how they learn. Not only will the student experience greater success, so will the teacher!
Kids Enabled would like to thank the following educators for their input and expertise:
Lynda Weaver, Peggy Price and Ursula Daniels from Coralwood School; Marsha Beisel, Liz Walsh and Melissa Sexton from The Howard School; Alex Jones and Tara Gilbert from Hirsch Academy; Katie Boehme from Sophia Academy; Katherine McGee and Matthew Carden from The Orion School (formerly The 504 School).