This story tells us of a child with dyscalculia, that’s familiar to thousands of children and their parents. It is not aimed to hurt or stigmatise anyone. One could write about dyslexia in almost the same way as dyscalculia is explained to you here.
Alexander looks forward to school
Alexander is a cheerful, bright child. After two years of nursery school, he is happy to be able to go to the first lesson together with his classmates. At school, he learns quickly. He likes gymnastics, reading and doing small experiments. Only calculating seems hard to him. Somehow the numbers just don‘t get in Alexander’s head. It does not seem logical to him that you have to write “23” and not “twenty-three”.
Alexander storms through the first and second years. No one is aware of the fact that he is struggling with his numbers, because he can hide his difficulties well. When he solves tasks, he counts with his fingers under the table, that 7 + 5 equals 12. Without understanding what multiplication means, he learns the times tables by heart by virtue of his intelligence and good memory. To avoid embarrassment when buying Panini stickers he would always give the shopkeeper too much money so that they do not have to ask for more, he doesn’t even know how expensive they are. He manages to avoid calculating in group work by relying on classmates that can count fast, which allows his struggles to go further unnoticed.
When the problems can no longer be hidden
By the third year Alexander can no longer hide his problems as the tasks are now too difficult or need to be solved faster. He always sleeps badly the night before a mathematics exam and in class he is afraid that the teacher will ask him for a solution. The worst is when the classmates listen and notice that he is not able to do a calculation. “What, you can’t do that? Even a baby could do this”, he hears. The classmates do not tease him yet, but group work does not go well, because he cannot help the rest of the group with the arithmetic. The next weeks project is on “Litre, Metre and Kilogram – Calculating with Masses”. Alexander wished to be sick all week, then he would not have to go to school. Luckily, reading and German is coming up. Alexander still loves that.
Alexander’s parents notice that he doesn’t like going to school as much as before and that he needed almost an hour for the mathematics homework, even though the teacher at the parents evening announced that the children only get about 15 minutes of homework. His parents try to help him with his homework by explaining and correcting the tasks, but their explanations are different and not as the teacher described. This further hinders Alexander as it confuses him completely and because his homework (helped by his parents) has hardly any mistakes, the teacher cannot see what difficulties Alexander really has.
Alexander loses the joy of learning
At the end of year 4, the problems come to a head: Alexander is much worse at mathematics than his classmates. As geometry is now in the curriculum and the children have to do the calculations individually to decide how far apart they need to hammer nails into a wall, he becomes worse in other subjects too. He becomes more secluded, less active in group activities and is often sick especially when there is a mathematics exam. He isolates himself more and more and loses the pleasure of learning. The lack of improvement of Alexanders problems with calculations start to worry the parents. They imagine that he will not be able to get any apprenticeships, and that he will struggle with his study even though he is very intelligent and still writes the best texts of the whole class. His arithmetic is now an inadequate note in his certification.
The school initiates measures and offers Alexander support, but he has lost the desire to learn mathematics. He is too frustrated by his many failures and has resigned himself to the fact that he cannot count. His parents find the promotional measures taken at the school great and do not want to accept that he simply cannot calculate, which only makes the situation worse. Now Alexander isolates himself from his parents and he becomes a loner in school.
With difficulty and distress using his last motivation Alexander makes the transition to the upper school. Now even more emphasis is placed on the numbers. In mathematics, geometric drawing, physics and chemistry, he simply does not understand anything. The fact that he is able to learn French completely without difficulty is completely left in the background. And on the horizon there is the transition to the professional education, which is particularly worrying his parents. Alexander feels misunderstood and marginalised. After two years in the upper school he falls into a depression. He does not want to go to school and refuses to attend classes.
Without a school degree, the apprenticeship search seems rather hopeless. But Alexander is very lucky and finds an understanding teacher, with whom he develops a good relationship. In the course of the lessons Alexander flourishes and he decides to catch up with the school-leaving certificate and completes the matriculation as an adult. Calculating is still not his strength, but in the subsequent study of German studies, mathematics is of little importance. Alexander is a doctor with “summa cum laude” and is now editor-in-chief of a week newspaper.
What Alexander’s story wants to tell us?
The negative spiral of poor performance in mathematics and motivation loss does not turn equally fast, equally long and equally deep in all children with dyscalculia. But not all children are as fortunate as Alexander to be torn out of this spiral by chance. For this reason, the spiral should be prevented from rotating at all at an early stage. In this way no major disadvantages would arise from a “small” problem.
The disadvantages in numbers
The fact that the problems arising from misunderstanding numbers is not invented but real, as shown in studies by English scholars (see references). The economic costs of low mathematical abilities are estimated at £ 2.4 billion per year. For a country of the size of Switzerland, this would amount to an annual cost of CHF 500 million. These huge amounts arise as a result of single persons with weaknesses in calculation.
- On average, earn less in the course of their lives.
- More often conflict with the law.
- Higher costs in school, social and health care.
- Beddington, J., Cooper, C.L., Field, J., et al. (2008). The mental wealth of nations. Nature, 455, 1057-1060.
- Butterworth, B., Varma, S., & Laurillard, D. (2011). Dyscalculia: From brain to education. Science, 332, 1049-1053.
- Gross, J., Hudson, C., & Price, D. (2009). The long-term cost of numeracy difficulties. Every Child a Chance Trust and KPMG, London.