Jacob's mother writes that ‘Jacob, 10-years-old, still struggles with number bonds to 10. Learning to tell the time is still slow - he has not mastered half-past. Although he managed to learn his 5x tables because we practiced all summer, this has now gone'.
Jacob has dyscalculia, a math disability where students struggle to learn or understand mathematics. Students with dyscalculia find it difficult to decipher math symbols (e.g. +, -), counting principles (‘two' stands for 2), solving arithmetic problems, and usually transpose numbers (e.g. 75 becomes 57). However, dyscalculia encompasses more than problems with numbers - there is also a struggle with telling the time as in Jacob's case, identifying left from right, and recognizing patterns.
But why do some students struggle to learn numbers and certain mathematical principles?
Working Memory plays a key role. To solve a mathematical problem like 1 + 1, we need to use our Visuo-Spatial Working Memory. Visuo-spatial working memory functions like a big mental blackboard that gives us a space to write all of the numbers necessary to solve a problem.
It also works together with the brain's calculator known as the Intraparietal Sulcus (IPS), located in the right hemisphere. Brain imaging studies that looked at brain activity while people were counting and calculating quantities reveal that when we count, regardless of whether it is shapes, numbers, or objects, the IPS is activated. In dyscalculics, this area underperforms and may underpin their maths difficulties.