Seven lessons my students with special needs taught me about teaching maths
After 14 years as a teacher in mainstream schools, I moved to work with secondary age students who were severely dyslexic. I had done my share of teaching science to bottom groups in mainstream, but this was a very different challenge. I had to be a learner as well as a teacher and I had to get some basic strategies in place pretty quickly. Back in 1981, there was not a lot of guidance on how to teach maths to dyslexic students.
Lesson 1: rote learning does not work for all
My first big lesson was that I needed to know how my students could learn and what it was about my mainstream skills that were not working. For example, I quickly found out that my 13-year-old students could not recall times table facts; so, in my ignorance, I thought to myself: Not taught properly, these students. I’ll soon get those tables into them. So I did five minutes of rote-learning the facts at the start of every maths lesson. Within a week they hated me. One boy would get up and bang his head on the wall when I announced that practice would begin. I am not impervious to subtle non-verbal communication, so I stopped the rote learning sessions.
It is of some amazement to me that this learning experience, some 31 years ago, has not spread to policy makers, who still think that rote learning basic facts is efficacious for all pupils. Reality has hit the USA ahead of the UK on this issue. Over there, basic facts are called “number combinations” to acknowledge that not all children learn them as facts.
Lesson 2: “If they can’t learn the way I teach, can I teach the way they learn?”
This saying was Dr Harry Chasty’s mantra. He was, for many years, the Chief Psychologist for the Dyslexia Institute and a great advocate for dyslexic students. The mantra applies to any learner, not just those with special needs, though the majority of students just take whatever teachers throw at them, a situation that can lull curriculum designers into a state of complacency.
“Teaching the way they learn” makes being a teacher such a wonderful job. Good teachers are constructively and empathetically creative, but you don’t have to start from square one every time. There is now a considerable body of knowledge on the ways that children, and adults, learn.
One of the long established strategies is to make lessons multi-sensory, or at least visual as well as oral. Maths concepts have to be demonstrated and developed from materials (or at least good and appropriate images) to symbols, with clear communication along the way. Not every child learns in the same way, so the same images/materials will not work for everyone.
Lesson 3: know which students have weak short-term and working memories
I watched one of my first dyslexic students copying the maths questions I had written on the board. He wrote down one symbol at a time. I had not realised just how difficult the task was that I had set for him, and that was before he even started to try and answer the questions. He could only hold one, or sometimes two, symbols in his short-term memory. This situation is very common amongst students with special needs and is devastating in many circumstances, for example, when remembering instructions given out by teachers.
It is widely believed that mental arithmetic makes you better at maths. However, the memory you use when doing mental arithmetic is called working memory. This facility is very often weak in children with special needs. So they do not have the basic capacity to do complex mental arithmetic. It is possible to teach some mental arithmetic strategies that require less working memory, but some students will not readily adapt to that change.
Lesson 4: being very anxious does not help learning
Anxiety makes the working memory less effective. Serious levels of anxiety can be seriously debilitating. Traditional teaching techniques can be stressful for some students if they do not match their preferred learning style.
Lesson 5: doing maths quickly is rarely productive
People often think that maths should be done quickly – “How many questions can you answer in two minutes?” However, having to do maths quickly is contrary to the slow processing capacity of some students with special needs. It can also create a “quick answer” attitude that is not at all helpful with problem solving, where reflection is required.
Lesson 6: children do not learn from their mistakes in maths
One of my golden rules for intervention is to go back further (in the maths) than the topic that is causing concern. Despite many years of maths lessons, too many children have not absorbed and understood the basics. The basics of maths are the foundations on which further concepts are built.
When a child learns a new topic in maths, if s/he learns it incorrectly, the fact that it is the first learning experience will make it a dominant entry in the brain. Teachers may correct it for a particular lesson, but it will return again.
Marking should acknowledge and point out errors where these are identifiable. This helps to make teaching diagnostic and helps to prevent misconceptions becoming established in the pupil’s brain. It may well be that demonstrating a concept with materials or visuals creates a stronger entry of the correct information in the brain.
Lesson 7: it’s complicated
The many factors that influence learning, some of which are cognitive (thinking abilities), some of which are emotional (anxiety), interact. Sometimes one factor is more prevalent and sometimes it’s another. Computers may not spot these times, but teachers can. This makes it very tricky to set up a definitive programme of intervention. Teachers need a range of skills and the ability to know when to use them appropriately, which implies that teaching students with learning difficulties (and all students, in fact) must be diagnostic.
Even after thirty years of intense involvement in special needs education, I am, thankfully, still learning about learning, and much of that is, still, from listening to students. I think I do far less damage these days when I teach, and the lessons I’ve leant have enabled me to keep maths GCSE grades for students at my specialist schools way above the average for the country, so we all must have been doing something right.
Steve Chinn is the former head of several schools for those with specific learning difficulties and the co-founder of CReSTeD. He has lectured and provided training in some 30 countries and he currently chairs the British Dyslexia Association’s sub-committee on dyscalculia: