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Beliefs about the way maths should be taught discriminate against pupils with SEN, writes Steve Chinn

There is much about maths that makes it a great subject to study. It is logical. It is developmental. You can use what you do know to work out what you do not know.

But, there is much that makes it a bad subject for many learners, most especially those with specific learning difficulties (SpLD). This is not really the fault of the maths, but the fault of the beliefs that influence the way it is taught and how many of those beliefs discriminate against learners with dyslexia, dyscalculia, speech and language difficulties and developmental coordination disorder (dyspraxia).

A current example is the Government’s plan to test children on their ability to retrieve times table facts from long-term memory. Behind this worrying addition to our testing regime is the belief that all children can learn these facts – a belief usually based on the notion that, “It worked for me, so it will work for everyone”. Of course, being able to access these facts (quickly, which is another belief) is useful, but it does not pre-determine success in maths. It will be difficult for the Standards and Testing Agency to create a test format that is pragmatic in terms of how it is administered and yet accommodates children with specific learning difficulties. For example, if the time allowed for each fact to be recalled is four seconds, then 25 per cent extra time takes that to five seconds, which will not improve the situation for the pupil. The pressure during the test will build for many pupils, creating anxiety which will further diminish the ability to retrieve the facts and the test will succeed only in confirming for many pupils that maths is not for them. It is likely that one of the main consequences of this “innovation” will be the need to restore motivation in pupils.

Tabling the question

In the past decade of lecturing to teachers around the UK, I have asked the question: “At age ten years, how many children do not know all the times table facts?” The most common answer, from a sample that now runs into thousands, is “70 per cent”. This could be used as an argument to increase the pressure on children to master this task, or it could be interpreted as a judgment on the efficacy of using rote learning for these facts.

Now that I have mentioned speed I can focus on that demand as a part of the discriminatory culture of maths. It is a pervasive demand in many topics within maths, in particular, metal arithmetic. Even without focusing on SpLD, there will be a normal distribution of speed for performing this skill and some pupils will not be able to match the arbitrary demands made of them.

So, think about the belief that mental arithmetic should be done quickly. But, also think what it asks of a child (or adult). To succeed in this area of maths pupils need a short-term memory capacity that is adequate enough to remember the question, a working memory capacity to perform the steps involved and a long-term memory for the procedure and facts needed for the task. Working memory capacity is reduced by anxiety, so any fear of failure will make success even less likely. And on top of this there is a demand for speed. Yet there is a belief that mental arithmetic is an effective “warm-up” exercise. It is a warm up that starts the lesson with a high risk of failure unless it is managed for success.

Turned off maths

I am concerned, and I have another large-sample informal survey to back up my concern, that too many children are withdrawing from maths at a young age. I think that the factors I have mentioned in this article are major contributors and I think they combine with another factor – a fear of negative evaluation – to exacerbate that situation.

Early arithmetic is harsh in that answers are right or they are wrong. For example, 7 x 8 equals 56. 54; although close, it won’t do. It is wrong. It seems like a reasonable human behaviour to avoid continuing failure, especially in judgmental situations. In my research into maths anxiety, “Waiting to hear your score on a maths test” ranked highly for my dyslexic and for my mainstream sample. This is another example of the impact of a fear of negative evaluation. How teachers give out marks – whether orally, in writing or via stars – will have an impact on insecure learners.

Setting a risk-taking ethos for a maths class or an intervention session will enhance motivation and involvement. Dealing with the fear of negative evaluation and building self-efficacy will help maintain motivation.

Teaching by example

Another belief is that apparatus, such as Cuisenaire rods, should not be used by older children and “older” is often interpreted as being around eight years old. Yet, when I taught physics (many years ago), not using demonstrations would have been judged as bad practice. This belief, as is the case for most beliefs, is absorbed by pupils and sets up a resistance to using apparatus, materials and visual images to aid understanding.

The lessons I learned from moving, after fifteen years of being a successful mainstream teacher, to thirty plus years of teaching, researching and writing about special needs is that maths education would become more efficacious if it paid attention to what works with the outliers. Help the outliers and you help all learners. It’s almost like inclusion!

Further information

Steve Chinn was headteacher of three specialist schools for dyslexia and co-occurring conditions. He has written and researched widely on dyscalculia and maths learning difficulties and has lectured in over thirty countries:

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