Why are some people so poor at maths?


The reasons for failure at maths are many and various, but the solution is obvious

In this article, I will present the key causes of poor performance in maths that I observe, and the remedies for these problems that are on offer. It may seem like a rather gloomy analysis – and I’m sorry for that – but there is a solution and it is there waiting for us, if only we could find the political will to grab it.

Cause 1: parental attitudes
“Don’t worry about maths, I was useless at it at school too.” To the parent making this type of point to a distressed child who just “doesn’t get” maths, it must seem like a helpful approach – it runs in the family; it’s not your fault. But we all know the problem of saying “it’s not your fault” to a young person. It not only removes blame, it also removes any drive to sort the matter out. It puts the problem, and thus the solution to the problem, outside the young person’s responsibility.

Cause 2: interrupted teaching
Maths is the ultimate logic. No other subject builds step by step in a similar logical progression. I might not know too much about the fall of the Roman Empire, but I can still understand the end of the French Revolution. I might not know how to spell “weird”, but I can still learn how to spell “English”.

But it doesn’t work like that in maths. Maths builds upon itself step by step. If you can’t count upwards from one, you can’t grasp the concept of odd and even numbers. If you can’t understand 2, 4, 6, 8, you can’t start to understand primes, and if you don’t know about addition, you can’t learn multiplication.

This means that for the child who has had an interrupted education, progress can only be accomplished by going back over the lost ground.

Cause 3: poor teaching
The logical rigour of maths means that pupils and students who are taught by poor maths teachers suffer more than they might have done if they were taught by a poor geography teacher. If poor teaching causes  pupils to effectively miss bits of maths out, it is far more difficult to pick up the pace later than if one is taught by a poor teacher in any other subject. A child whose secondary maths education includes a year of having a string of supply teachers of varying ability will suffer more than one whose secondary history education is affected in the same way.

Cause 4: dyscalculia
Possible causes one to three may be easy to understand, but they don’t tell the full story; genetics too can play a part. There is no doubt in the scientific world that there is a genetic disability which causes some people to have huge difficulties with number and associated issues. Sometimes, such problems can be seen alongside disabilities such as dyscalculia and ADHD, sometimes they appear on their own.

The current estimate is that around six per cent of the UK population suffers from dyscalculia, and anyone who has the condition, or has witnessed another with it, will know that the effects can be profound.

So, there we have four possible causes of numeracy problems. What, then, are the solutions?

Solution 1: adult education
If we could somehow change the societal attitudes that tend to label an interest or ability in maths as “geeky”, as something that many people can’t do and as something that is a “boys thing”, we may be able to make serious progress.

Solution 2: group settings
This is the traditional solution within schools: children are set according to their mathematical abilities. For those who are quite good at maths, it is a great idea; they progress faster. For those who aren’t so good, and who find themselves in the bottom set, it seems to work less well, as it can re-enforce the attitude of “I can’t do maths”.

Solution 3: early identification
Noting a child’s inability to comprehend maths early on is not that hard. It is certainly no harder than noting a child’s inability to read and write at the predicted level. It can be done by the age of seven, or five in some cases. Even earlier analysis is possible, although the earlier one does the tests, the higher the chance of error.

Solution 4: re-teaching
When identified, it is possible to take children out of mainstream maths teaching and give them extra help. Unfortunately, this notion is not as satisfactory as it might appear. The repetition of work which has been taught before, using the same methodology but at a lower speed, can work very well for those who have been told that being poor at maths is common and not important. It can also help those who have missed some teaching or have had poor teaching experiences. But it can also raise problems when the child starts to say “I have done this before”. The implication is: I didn’t get it last time, so I won’t get it now.

Solution 5: multi-sensory teaching
The actual solution, which works with all people no matter what their age and no matter what the reason for their inability to learn maths up to the expected level for their intellect, is the multi-sensory approach. This approach is used widely in teaching dyslexic students and it works just as well with maths.

In this approach, the teacher makes maths much more physical and less abstract, teaching each concept through a process which uses the maths symbols alongside physical entities, and has the student writing and speaking each transaction as it happens.

But why, if it is so effective and works with individuals no matter what the cause of their problem, is this approach not used in schools across the country? The truth is that the multi-sensory system is not ideally suited to a class of 30; it works better for a group of three, and teaching in small groups is more expensive. And that’s the long and the short of it. We could help almost every person with a numeracy problem. The reason we don’t is simple: money.

However, it is important to remember that many people are being helped. Where special needs teachers and teaching assistants do choose to work with mutli-sensory materials, and particularly where they are able to persuade parents to carry on the good work for ten minutes a day, progress can be very fast and the problems can generally be overcome, at least to a level that enables the young person to get a C grade in GCSE maths and to cope in the modern world.

Somehow, we just have to persuade the paymasters that this approach is worth it for all children with numeracy problems.

Further information

Tony Attwood is a member of the Dyscalculia Centre:

Tony Attwood
Author: Tony Attwood

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