Growing up I was just a regular kid, I went to a normal government Primary School in an affluent area of Melbourne. I wasn’t stupid, my grades were often high and I had social awareness like no other. Although I hated reading in my own time, I enjoyed the sociability of a classroom novel. My inference of textual concepts outweighed many others in my classes. I loved English and was a natural writer. I just got it. I never studied hard, but my capacity to retain knowledge with a literacy base was high. Then there was History, I could spend hours fantasizing and delving into theories of strategies and warfare. Ancient Monarchies and Democracies fascinated me the most. And let’s not forget the brutality of wartime attrition.
As a natural learner with a high thirst for knowledge, a teaching career was an obvious choice. I went to University and studied a variety of subjects based around Dramatic and Historical Theory. And this left with me with the ability to teach a combination of secondary school subjects based around English, Drama, Humanities and Technology. But there was something in this pattern of literature that differentiated me from the ‘normal graduate’.
I remember my first day in the classroom with a bunch of rowdy year 10 students. I sat them down and I told them a few things about myself. The topics of wish I would regurgitate continuously for the next six years as a teacher. It was here that I would learn of my abilities or lack of ability. Having been in this head for the last 21 years, I was fairly certain of my weaknesses as a teacher. I knew I had to admit something that would break the facade that ‘all teachers know everything’. It was here with my American History students, that I admitted that I was possibly the worst Math student in the whole wide world. My preamble over the next few years would include, “I am probably going to stuff up the calculations of your test results. Please check them. If I have given you less, come and tell me. If you have got more then you should… Keep it to yourself.”
Throughout my entire schooling I stressed about Mathematics. It was not something I could conceptualize. As hard as I tried, I could never learn my timetables. Fractions were off the scale and do not even get me started with long division. I had become so confused with the whole division thing that I just gave up entirely. I struggled to read the time, as I couldn’t understand the divisions of a 60 minute time frame. Learning telephone numbers were as simple as writing it down at least 100 times with some sort of vocal pattern to help with the memory absorption.
As I reached High School, I was relieved to be allowed to use a calculator. But I still managed to cut from the back of the exercise book the timetables square. I used to sticky tape it into my calculator so my friends wouldn’t see how heavily I relied on it. As I was not intellectually low, I never came across the radar as a student that would struggle or needed extra help. So I was just expected to carry on like the rest of the kids in the class.
My hatred for Mathematics only increased, as I learnt which teachers I could push and which I couldn’t, I would spend more time daydreaming out the window that struggling to try and understand something that I would forget about as soon as I go home. To my credit, I made it to year 11 General Mathematics. Retrospectively I should have never bothered, because I failed it anyway. The reason being – I didn’t copy enough out of Ernie’s book. Giving up Mathematics was the best decision I ever made. For the first time in my life, I could actually focus on literature based subjects that I could understand.
As I moved into the working world, I was scared of the cash register. I had enough trouble trying to give the person at the register the right amount of money when I was paying. I couldn’t comprehend let alone collecting money and then adding it up for banking. By my Third Year in University, I was managing a retail store. I used to count each denomination twice and by number of coins, which I would simply multiple the number by the value at the coin at the conclusion of the counting. My theory was that if I got the same number twice I was right the first time, if not I would have to count it again until I hit two identical numbers. Although seemingly faultless, I still managed to stuff it up more often than not.
I knew that in a classroom, I would be outed. As growing up all the emphasis is places on the subjects which have Mathematical or Scientific foundations. And that the Literature based subjects were scaled down to compensate for them “being easier”. In other words, if you couldn’t calculate then typically you were seen as stupid. I knew I wasn’t. But I also knew that I had to hide my inability to formulate simplistic equations from others for fear of judgement.
As I got older, and the more often I would muck up test scores and calculations at the supermarket, I began to accept my affliction. I would just avoid any adding, subtracting, multiplying or dividing if possible. The only thing I couldn’t avoid was banking. I knew I had to do this myself and I seriously do not have enough fingers and toes to represent the number of times I have paid things into the wrong accounts, underpaid or overpaid my Health Insurance by six months.
Most notability was when I was writing on the board in classes. I would often forget a number in a sequence, say 1-20. The students on the other hand used to think it was hilarious. I would get the “Misssss, you did it again.” And then still have no understanding of the mistake that I had made. I was scared that one day they would ask me to take year 7 Math and they wouldn’t understand that I possibly physically couldn’t.
So about two months ago, I was sitting at my desk. It was the time of the month when rent was due. I went into my online banking and swiftly paid my rent. The money was gone from my account and I was back to work. Approximately three days later I got a phone call from the Real Estate Agent. The money had never made it. Checking my bank account I had realised that I had transferred the rent amount onto my credit card. URGH! Fortunately I was able to sort it out and have set up direct debit to stop this from happening again.
Frustrated and annoyed at myself for being such an idiot and making a stupid mistake all the time. I took to the internet and Googled ‘inability to calculate the simplest of sums’. Startled by my find, I was able to read a large enough number of sources to establish that in fact I was DSYCALCULIC.
Dyscalculia is the basic inability to calculate and manipulate simplistic equations. As it is still largely unknown and under diagnosed sufferers and educators are left in the Mathematical dark. Most interestingly is that is it referred to as a ‘learning disability’, something that I would have never had thought that I would have had.
Dyscalculia is under diagnosed because me and alike many sufferers do not present to be intellectually low in any other area. As an Educator, I would assess children on the basis of vocabulary and knowledge, inference and conceptualisation, as well as analytical and expressive responses and finally on the very basic level – motor skills- handwriting. In English, it is easy to connect with students that identify with a decrease in ability to understand the concepts presented. But in Mathematics it is really so varied and inconsistent that most teacher’s would look for academic dips in other subject areas in order to assess a student’s intelligence.
The most interesting article I have found on Dyscalculia, and perhaps that one that hit home the most was one about an Emeritus Professor by the name of Brian Butterworth, who is a Professor of Cognitive Neuropsychology in the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University College in London. As an educated and highly intellectual man, you would not consider him to demonstrate symptoms that would define him as having a ‘learning disability‘. Professor Butterworth is a dyscalculia sufferer. So much so that “…he hasn’t changed his phone number or PIN in years for fear that he would never remember new ones, and when working for Britain’s Ministry of Defence he put subordinates in charge of remembering safe codes.”(1)
I was astonished that I had finally found an explanation for being absolutely hopeless with calculations and why I had given up on numbers long ago. On the whole it actually helped to explain a lot for me. And for the first time in years, I had actually felt at ease with being so ridiculously silly with numbers.
The first call was to my Math teacher/ Math genius of a girlfriend who worked alongside me in various roles at school. Previously we had shared role of responsibility and we had divided the tasks up by Math/English. She had control of all of the budgets and I would do the writing and creation of documents etc. We laughed and confirmed what I had always known.
I guess the biggest issue I had with understanding Dyscalculia, was that I had just wished that a teacher had told me long ago, to just give up on Math and to focus on English. It would have saved all the anxiety in Primary School about competing in Math competitions. And I would have saved myself from the disappointment of test results and probably not have worried about what my peers thought about me when I could only obtain 50% mercy marks for tests.
The irony here is the girls that used to give me the most heat for not being Mathematically inclined, did not beat my Year 12 ENTER score. The closest was at least 6 marks behind me. And this whole time had been bullying me to believe that I was actually unintelligent because I didn’t know my timetables.
What I have learnt from this ordeal is that I am frustrated with the Education System reflecting that students, who are not good at Math and Sciences, are indeed the lesser of the intelligences. This is not in line with Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences and it does not represent the natural society outside of the classroom.
As adults, we know that intelligence is not the ability to add up equations but to be an expert in your own field. I guess I just feel sorry for those children out there who will suffer the same fate as me with the under diagnosed and misunderstood ‘intellectual disability‘ of Dyscalculia.
“Calculate the possible and forget the rest.”
1). Dyscalculia: Number games. Brian Butterworth is on a crusade to understand the number deficit called dyscalculia — and to help those who have it. http://www.nature.com/news/dyscalculia-number-games-1.12153 (At the bottom of this article is several more resources, including the texts written by Professor Brian Butterworth himself.)
2). What is Dsycalculia? http://www.dsf.net.au/LearningDisabilities/WhatisDyscalculia/tabid/139/language/en-AU/Default.aspx
3). The National Centre for Learning Disabilities. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HVf_OHK2hHQ
4). About Dsycalculia. http://www.aboutdyscalculia.org/symptoms.html
5). Dyscalculia, Dyslexia and Maths. http://www.bdadyslexia.org.uk/about-dyslexia/schools-colleges-and-universities/dyscalculia.html