Born to fail math?

Bad at math? Blame your brain, suggests the San Jose Mercury News.

Recent findings indicate that how well 3-year-olds estimate quantities predicts their math ability in elementary school. Another study funded by the National Institutes of Health showed that the innate capacity to estimate is impaired in children who have a math learning disability.

An estimated five to eight percent of the population suffers from dyscalculia, researchers say, though they have no clear definition of the condition, much less what to do about it.

“Children are being considered lazy or unmotivated, or not to have potential, when in fact they have a disability in processing numbers,” said Michele Mazzocco, the lead researcher on the studies. “We need to learn how this can be overcome.”

Students in the bottom 10 percent of math achievement are poor at estimating, yet those in the bottom 11 to 25 percent don’t have problems with estimation.

What dyscalculic children lack is “number sense,” something that most people take for granted but is a construct that can’t always be taught. “You can’t just tell somebody that 8 is more than 4,” Mazzocco said. “It’s not like memorizing states and their capitals.”

Children with dyscalculia don’t activate the parietal cortex, which is critical for number processing, in the same way that other children do, said Daniel Ansari, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Western Ontario.


About Joanne


  1. Careful here with your title. You’ve mistaken the ability to manipulate and understand numbers (numeracy) with an ability to do math. What we teach kids early on in their careers is essentially computational numeracy, but many people are able to cope with complicated math ideas without being able to do basic computations. The two skills are related to each other, but not co-dependent.

  2. I find the graphic particularly interesting. Saying that 58% of people would rather take foreign language than algebra shows nothing of importance. In a perfectly random world, 50% of people would choose a, and 50% would chose B. In this case, it happened to be 58/42. I’m not sure that small of a difference can prove that students were “traumatized.”

    I also am not suprised that parents find it easier to teach driving than algebra. We are comparing a skill they use everyday and are incredibly familiar with, to a skill they may not have practiced or used in 15 or 20 years.

  3. I am also amazed that people can say that 5 to 8%of a population suffer from a condition that they cannot define. If you don’t have a definition, or diagnostic criteria (and being bad at math isn’t a diagnostic criteria for a disability), how can you start identifying who has it?

    It appears that they have just labeled a general weakness with math and created a new disability. Is it really suprising that some people are worse at math? Almost everyone has some skill or area in which they are weak. Does this mean everyone will eventually have at least one disability?

  4. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Good grief–I’d MUCH rather teach Algebra than driving! Even the thought of a kid with a learner’s fills me with dread-with Algebra the worst that can go wrong is that you need to backtrack a little and explain again.

    Maybe the problem is that X is so scary. I propose we replace all letters in algebraic expressions with cuddly puppies, rainbows, and unicorns!

  5. Funny how this “dyscalculia” has hit kids all of the sudden. Back in ancient times, when I went to grade school, every kid in my fourth grade class was MADE to learn long division. No excuses, no dyscalculia, no drama. When your turn came, you went up and did the problem on the blackboard and no two ways about it. The fear of embarrassment was apparently stronger than all of the dyscalculia in the world.

    The article refers to “math ability in elementary school” which is simple, basic stuff that everyone is capable of learning. We’re not talking calculus…

  6. I’m with Rob; I remember the days when all kids of reasonably normal intelligence learned basic arithmetic, fractions, decimals and percentages – by the end of 8th grade. There was no such thing as ADD/ADHD then, either. My teachers understood kids, did not see boys as defective girls, were serious about academics and knew math and how to teach it. Of course, that was back in the day when women had few acceptable career choices (teaching, nursing, office work). I’ve heard far too many ES teachers admit that they don’t like or understand math and went into ES teaching because they loved kids and wouldn’t have to take any math courses in college. I think there’s a relationship between that mindset, math curriculum and instruction (and other subject content) and the ever-increasing artsy-crafty, touchy-feely readings and projects. The whole ES (and some MS) reminds me of ES girls playing school.

  7. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Mom of 4– I see the same thing–when I was little most of my elementary school teachers thought elementary school math was pretty easy–(the one exception was also barely literate and was in the district under some sort of “take 5 years to pass the Praxis 1” program.) When I meet retired teachers my parents’ age, the women are usually pretty good at Math (My Mom was right on the cusp between the “women teach” generation and the “women can do whatever” generation- she got a master’s in microbiology and worked in blood banks because she HATED vomit, so teaching and nursing were both out!)

    New ES teachers tend to think that math is hard and fractions are REALLY hard. I have a lot of friends who would have been teachers in years past (love kids, love math and science) but who are engineers and doctors and programmers, and who just volunteer with kids on the weekends.

    On the one hand, I think the change is a good thing, because my friends are on the cutting edge of all sorts of fields– trapped in a classroom, they wouldn’t be innovating like this. On the other hand, we really need to find a way to teach math when there’s a shortage of qualified ES teachers!

  8. tim-10-ber says:

    I think this is hogwash…

    Why are we so scared of math? Yes, teachers need to understand math and be able to teach it and maybe that is the root of the problem? For too long teachers have attempted to teach something they were horrible at, were scared of and had no clue how to teach…

    Hmmm…again, hogwash! We are too soft on kids…and not hard enough on teachers truly understanding and being able to teach their subject…I believe we need math and reading specialist in the classroom because teachers that should be able to teach this can’t and aren’t. The kids keep getting screwed!

  9. Yes, dyscalculia is real:,3746,en_2649_35845581_34495560_1_1_1_1,00.html

    Dyscalculia Primer and Resource Guide by Anna J. Wilson

    Anna Wilson is an OECD Post-Doctoral Fellow at INSERM U562, Paris, conducting cognitive neuroscience research on the remediation of dyscalculia.

    The purpose of this primer is to explain the cognitive neuroscience approach to dyscalculia (including the state of research in this area), to answer frequently asked questions, and to point the reader towards further resources on the subject. Further references include some of the major scientific literature in the field, as well as reading suggestions for teachers and parents.

    Note: The term dyscalculia in this document refers to developmental dyscalculia (present from birth or at an early age) and not to acquired dyscalculia (acquired as a result of brain lesion).


    For those of you who will not click through to read the primer,

    Wilson writes:

    What is dyscalculia?

    The first neuropsychological definition of developmental dyscalculia was put forward by the researcher Kosc (1974), who defined it as a difficulty in mathematical performance resulting from impairment to those parts of the brain that are involved in mathematical processing, without a concurrent impairment in general mental function. This definition is the same definition that researchers in cognitive neuroscience use today when searching for the causes and features of dyscalculia.

    Are there other definitions of dyscalculia?

    Yes, there are other definitions of dyscalculia, as well as other similar constructs that are defined in slightly different ways. For instance the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edn, American Psychiatric Association) includes the diagnosis 315.1 “Mathematics Disorder”, and in the United States there is an educational definition of “Mathematical Disabilities” linked to the legal definition of learning disabilities given in Public Law 94-142.

    What all of these definitions have in common is 1) the presence of difficulties in mathematics, 2) some degree of specificity to these (i.e. the lack of across-the-board academic difficulties) and 3) the assumption that these are caused in some way by brain dysfunction.

  10. Admitting dyscalculia is real does not mean arguing that math is well-taught in elementary school.

    It isn’t.

    Many teachers are poorly prepared to teach k-8 math concepts and procedures.

  11. In four years, you can get a BSN (BS in Nursing) and students have to learn lots of new material – anatomy, physiology, chem, biochem, microbiology, pharmacology, therapeutic nutrition, pathophysiology, psych – general, developmental, abnormal and all of the nursing knowledge and skills – and must pass a serious exam for a license to practice (and it’s light years beyond the Praxis).

    Why on earth is it not only possible but all too likely that prospective ES teachers (maybe MS, as well) are not required to MASTER math (and all of the other subjects) in four years when they should have arrived in college with that knowledge?

  12. Roger Sweeny says:

    Almost everyone has some skill or area in which they are weak. Does this mean everyone will eventually have at least one disability?

    If having a disability means that a person gets money or services or special accommodations, then the answer may well be “yes.”

  13. Stacy in NJ says:

    I was a terrible math student k-12. I barely passed algebra I and geometry in high school and didn’t even attempt any higher level math. I took accounting for my 3rd year math credit. I was able to pass a statistics class in college for the necessary undergraduate math credit (liberal arts college).

    I home schooled my eldest through 8th grade and relearned basic math (Singapore) and algebra I (Foerster’s) as I taught my son. It was no problem. I now enjoy algebra quite a bit- it’s fun.

    Did I receive poor instruction as a kid or was I incapable of that level of math? Was I only capable of higher level math after my brain had “matured”?

    My guess is that I was capable all along. The horrible instructional sequence, hit or miss instruction, and the push along to the next level without really mastering the more basic levels snowballed into failure.

    My eldest son began his first year of high school this fall. He tested into honors geometry and currently has an average in the 90’s. So far so good. Apparently my mediocre instruction didn’t ruin him.

  14. greeneyeshade says:

    I’d laugh at the idea myself, but my older daughter, after 12 years in a better-than-average, non-“government,” school, had to give up the idea of a nursing career when she hit college because she couldn’t do math. The wiring just wasn’t there. (Not that the school was perfect: If you didn’t look like prestige-college material, they didn’t seem to know what to do with you. The math dept. essentially warehoused her and a few others the last 3 years.) Thanks, Liz Ditz.