Print

It seems common sense to suggest that if a pupil or student is struggling to learn maths, then instead of teaching the maths as an abstract concept, it should be taught with real-world examples.

In a classic real-world example the issue of distance might be taught with a tale of two trains travelling at different speeds from different places to the same destination – the question being which one will arrive first.

The argument here is that by making the problem one that can be understood as a real-life situation, we are making it easier for the dyscalculic pupil or student to understand the concepts involved.

There is, of course, a logic in this in that most dyscalculic pupils and students make much faster progress when they are taught maths in a multi-sensory way so that they are not just seeing the numbers such as “2” and “12” etc as abstract concepts, but are also seeing two counters and twelve counters.

But there is some contrary evidence which can be derived from an article by Jennifer Kaminski in the American journal Science, that says that this doesn’t actually make it easier for non-dyscalculic children to learn maths.

In her article Jennifer Kaminski argued that, "The danger with teaching using this example is that many students only learn how to solve the problem with the trains."

Now with dyscalculia we already have a major problem because dyscalculia can mean that different people see and understand maths in different ways – and there is a suggestion that for many of them by making the maths “real” in the sense of relating it to everyday life, we end up by making it more complicated, because the everyday life example confuses further an already confused student.

The argument is that it can therefore be better for the dyscalculic student to be taught numbers as numbers rather than numbers as ways of solving problems.  

Today, using multisensory techniques is still very much the preferred approach to helping dyscalculic students, but without relationship to real-world examples – for these, it seems, can often be a step too far.