Mathematical Brain
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Naze sugaku ga tokui na hito to nigate na hito ga irunoka?
(Why are some people good, but others bad at maths?)

Mathematical Brain
Brian Butterworth

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When Sums Don't Add Up
by Fred Redwood
The Daily Mail: Education Notebook: 4th February, 2003.

Who hasn't come across this scene in a shop? The till jams, and with no calculator to hand, the young assistant has to work out the price of several items in her head.

The result is embarassing to watch as the junior struggles with the simplest of calculations. Impatient shoppers usually put this down to poor teaching, over-reliance on computers or lack of intelligence.

But Brian Butterworth, professor of cognitive neuropsychology at University Cololege, London, believes it could be down to the mathematical equivalent of dyslexia - "dyscalculia".

He said: "Recent studies in Lancashire and Norway reveal that between 3.5 per cent and 10 per cent of people have it.

"Dyscalculics cannot understand even simple number concepts. They have an impaired sense of number size, trouble adding in multiples of two or three, and can't comprehend the difference between say, 10, 100, 1,000 and so on, when written as numbers."

Dyscalculia was discovered in 1919 by Salomon Henschen, a Swedish neurologist, who found it was possible to have impaired mathematical ability while being perfectly intelligent in other ways.

What causes the condition? Professor Butterworth says: "We seem to be born with a brain circuit linked to mathematical ability."

"Babies can do very basic addition and subtractions - place four teddy bears with a baby, then hide one and the baby will expect to find the missing teddy. Dyscalculics don't do that.

"Forty per cent of dyslexics are dyscalculic, but you also find some extremely severe dyslexics who have no trouble at all with maths."

Identifying dyscalculia in children is difficult because there are so many other reasons why a child might be poor at maths - ineffective teaching, being with disruptive children, a personality clash with the maths teacher, an undiagnosed hearing or sight problem or persistent absence from school.

So what are the warning signs? Professor Butterworth says: "It will be evident from an early age. Learning how to tell the time will prove extremely difficult because the numbers on the clock will have no meaning. When playing shop and being taught how to carry out a simple transaction, the dyscalculic won't understand the concept of receiving chnage.

"Most significantly, the child is likely to complain that he doesn't understand whenever he is involved with anything to do with numbers."

It is tempting for parents to opt for after-school group teaching, but Porfessor Butterworth warns: "We have found no properly evaluated form of correction as yet. The best help is probably one-to-one tuition.

"Reduce anxiety levels - don't harp on about the problem. When understanding breaks down in maths, the child feels as if he's drowning in a sea of incomprehension. This leads to more anxiety."

Where can parents get help? The British Dyslexia Association offers book lists and a pamphlet from the National Numeracy Straegy, outlining children's rights to 45 minutes of tuition a day.

Dr. Lindsay Peer, deputy chief executive, says: "The parents should contact the school's special education needs co-ordinator (SENCO) who should ensure that the dysaclculic isn't asked to contribute to whole class question and answer sessions, which will cause embarassment and frustration."

So is dyscalculia as siginificant a problem as dyslexia? Professor Butterworth says; "It's like colour blindness - something the sufferer can work around.

"Use of calculators and computers can help enormously, and we have found that some children with severe dyscalculia can, nevertheless, achieve A-level maths.

"They can understand abstract mathematics despite struggling with the basics. Later in life, the problem should only be a minor irritation if there is technology in the workplace."

So when the till comes back to life, the dyscalculic operator can return to welcome anonymity.

Contact the British Dyslexia Association on 0118 966 8271 or www.


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