It could be that you or they have dyscalculia, or the math equivalent of dyslexia.
Dyscalculia (difficulty in learning or comprehending mathematics) was originally identified in case studies of patients who suffered specific arithmetic disabilities as a result of damage to specific regions of the brain. Recent research suggests that dyscalculia can also occur developmentally, as a genetically-linked learning disability which affects a person’s ability to understand, remember, and/or manipulate numbers and/or number facts (e.g. the multiplication tables). The term is often used to refer specifically to the inability to perform arithmetic operations, but is defined by some educational professionals and cognitive psychologists as a more fundamental inability to conceptualize numbers as abstract concepts of comparative quantities (a deficit in “number sense”). Those who argue for this more constrained definition of dyscalculia sometimes prefer to use the technical term Arithmetic Difficulties (AD) to refer to calculation and number memory deficits.
Approximately 5% of the population has dyscalculia. Most probably don’t even know it. They probably thought they were just stupid in math and had given up on all math a long time ago.
Hello, my name is Casey, and I have dyscalculia. I am not ashamed (anymore) to say I can’t mentally make change, calculate tip, or estimate how much my grocery bill is as I’m shopping (I only find out I went over budget at the checkout lane). I see the numbers in my head, but barely, they tend not to “stick” but just vaporize into thin air. I just don’t visualize the numbers like I do with words. I was an excellent speller in school and could remember words or facts (other than numbers) very easily. Which is really weird, because I can remember 10 digit telephone numbers really well, I just can’t remember arithmetic sequences like 29 plus 37 long enough to get a result of 66 without really struggling. I have to force myself to really really focus, and even then, it’s still hazy. It’s a number memory problem I think, but still, it’s not quite readily explained because I can remember a 10 digit telephone number for years. Maybe because it’s attached to a memory of a person that is important to me. I really don’t know.
However, I am here to assure you that it is not the death sentence that it seems. Being bad in math doesn’t preclude you from having a functional life or even going after that degree that uses a lot of math.
I am one example. Despite my mental math inability, I chose science (biotechnology) as a career choice and it required a lot of math classes. I ended up choosing the calculus for engineers classes rather than for biology majors simply because I was too stubborn to admit math was really hard for me. Call me a glutton for punishment, but I really had something to prove to myself. I had earned my degree, and went on to have a 12 year career in biosciences – microbiology, forensics, and medical genetics.
But, I still can’t easily make change, and I blush heavily when I have to divide the tab and calculate tip especially when I am among friends (and I’ll be 38 this year). And, I struggle greatly when I have to calculate the percentage off when trying to look for bargains. I only recently found that 25 % off something means I just divide the amount by 4. And even then, it’s not always easy. Try standing in a store, trying to figure out how much 25% off an item that’s 24.99. Even when you call it $25, then divide by 4, it comes out to $6.25. Then subtract that from 25. The item should cost you $18.75. How many of you got that right without using a calculator? How many of you guessed that I used the calculator on the computer because I couldn’t do it in my head and I didn’t want to be embarrassed by getting it wrong? How many of you guessed that even though I used the computer’s calculator, I’m worried someone will come along and point out an error I made (whether or not I actually did, really isn’t the point. I could be right and still have that fear I did it wrong – can we say math anxiety anyone?).
In my searching for the answer to what this limitation is all about, I found another woman who chose a math oriented career despite her dyscalculia. Dr. Emma J. King, a British physicist who received her Ph.D. in Cosmology (the quantitative study of the universe) not only suffers from dyscalculia, she is not ashamed to admit it. In fact, she quite readily admits she can not add 4+3 without using her fingers. SHE IS MY HERO.
In a BBC Radio audio clip (scroll down to Programme 3 and click the audio button) , you can here all about dyscalculia and from Dr. Emma J. King herself.
The good news is that if you can get beyond the limitation of the arithmetic difficulties (sometimes employing more visual or kinestethic means of learning math through manipulatives and modeling clay), there are plenty of facets of math that actually are fun. Simple arithmetic may seem a burden, but that doesn’t prevent one from being good at algebra or geometry. By the time one gets to the higher level maths, the calculator is a great tool that enables one to do the basic calculations so that one can really start appreciating math as the art that it is.
Did I just say that math is art? Yes, I did. In a future post, I will go into why I believe that (and how math educators have really lost the point as to what math is meant for).
In the meantime, think of the arithmetic portion of math as the means to an end and if you can go easy on yourself that you (or your loved one) may have this condition and realize that dyscalculia is nothing to be ashamed of, you can let go of the burden of anxiety you feel when you encounter math in daily living. After all, you can always carry a calculator.
And, in my case, I’ve gone one step further – I married a mechanical engineer. He’s is a math god. I’m hoping our girls inherit his good math genes (particularly since his paternal great-grandfather could calculate 3 digit plus numbers easily in his head, despite the fact that he never finished high school), because mine leave a lot to be desired.