Friday, 24 May 2013

Teenage Brains and Tricky Subjects

This week I have been reading (and watching) The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas with a lower-attaining Y8 group. The students have been, by and large, engaged and thoughtful in their discussions.

However, I have noticed that certainly in terms of the empathetic aspect of their learning, I have had to regularly coach them in appropriate comments and put in place clear boundaries (as some attempted to make 'jokes' by comparing one another to the Jewish character Schmuel). I mentioned this to the educational psychologist I work with, a colleague I hold in very high esteem, who noted that the teenage brain's frontal lobe - which is responsible for higher-level emotional skills, higher-level reasoning and plays a key part in inhibiting inappropriate behaviour - is one of the final parts to develop into adulthood, lagging somewhat behind other aspects. I find this fascinating as we often base much of our classroom management on encouraging teenagers to empathise and reason.

I guess, in terms of the content of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, knowledge of this has helped me be far more patient and calm (but nonetheless assertive) in responding to 'jokes' which for such an emotive issue as The Holocaust, would ordinarily cause high offence.

I think, also, that some of their insensitivity is perhaps also borne out of them coming from a younger generation - I heard first-hand stories of World War Two and the experience of Jewish people from my grandparents. For my students, born in 2000, this is unlikely to be the case.

I also think this has relevance to one of today's news items, the prevalence of teenagers accessing pornography and other explicit videos online - and the risks this poses to them developing a healthy psychology.

It is also worth noting that for lower-attaining students - many of whom have what we terms as 'dyslexia', 'attention deficit' and so on - it stands to reason that they may encounter more difficulty in activating their frontal lobes! The infographic below, which I developed some time ago for a presentation, summarises this (to download it as a pdf poster, click here):

If you want to read more into this issue, I also recommend the following:

Top Ten Quotes on Dyscalculia

Following on from my post about dyscalculia, I've been looking around for quotes which might be useful for classroom displays to get students (and teachers!) thinking about the importance of Maths and how we overcome difficulties in this subject. Here are a few I think are worth sharing:

> "It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer." - Albert Einstein

> "If I have been able to see further, it was only because I stood on the shoulders of giants." - Isaac Newton

> "Somebody came up to me after a talk I had given, and say, “You make mathematics seem like fun.” I was inspired to reply, “If it isn’t fun, why do it?”" - Ralph P. Boas

> "I advise my students to listen carefully the moment they decide to take no more mathematics courses. They might be able to hear the sound of closing doors." - James Caballero

> "We only think when confronted with a problem." - John Dewey

"The essence of mathematics is not to make simple things complicated, but to make complicated things simple." - S. Gudder

> "I’ve missed 3000 shots. Twenty-six times the game-winning shot has been trusted to me, and I’ve missed. I’ve lost over 300 games. I’ve failed over and over and over again, and that is why I’ve succeeded." - Michael Jordan

> "I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand." - Chinese Proverb

> "There is no branch of mathematics, however abstract, which may not someday be applied to the phenomena of the real world." - Nicolai Lobachevsky

> "Do not worry about your difficulties in mathematics, I assure you that mine are greater." - Albert Einstein

Saturday, 18 May 2013

The Question of Dyscalculia

I have to admit I know very little about dyscalculia in comparison to say dyslexia, autism and attachment theory. However, one evening this week - whilst casually surfing the net - I stumbled across this 5-minute BBC documentary, originally from The One Show, which provides a good introduction. From there, I've done a bit more focused reading around the subject.

Certainly I have encountered students who present with persistent, specific difficulties with acquiring basic numeracy and from there, higher-level Maths skills. But the numbers of those who experience this as their sole difficulty and not alongside other issues such as autism, dyslexia and low self-esteem is, from what I have seen over the past decade, relatively low. Students who present with 'pure dyscalculia' tend to be a 'minority within a minority'. 

I am ready to accept the argument that this could be an issue of mis-identification - and maybe also due to our national culture where illiteracy is something to be very concerned about whereas innumeracy is something far more acceptable. How many times have you heard, "I'm really worried, he's struggling with Maths..." compared to "I'm really worried, he's struggling with reading and writing..."? And this is perhaps why SEN & support teams have much less referrals relating to particular concerns over numeracy.

The impact of illiteracy on a person's future prospects is pretty well-documented when compared to the long-term consequences of innumeracy. However, there are interesting news articles out there which point to its wide-ranging impact:

Having looked at these, how did you initially respond? With an urgent sense of concern or slight bemusement? I think many of us, if we are honest, would fall into the latter. That said, there are other more recent news articles out there that raise the sense of importance in identifying and addressing numeracy difficulties:

There are various reasons posited for why people do not, and seemingly cannot, acquire a level of Maths required for everyday living and working. Our national culture has already been mentioned and the quality of Maths teaching has also come under the spotlight but there is evidence to suggest that dyscalculia-type differences are rooted in genetic / biological make-up, sitting quite separately from general intelligence - which often  then snowballs into a full-blown difficulty via the education system.

A question has also been raised as to whether we are currently caught in a vicious circle whereby parents with underdeveloped Maths do not have the understanding, skills or confidence to help their sons and daughters with Maths homework.

In terms of the 'dyscalculic experience', the main difficulties reported include:


- learning the meaning of numbers - known as number sense
- sorting objects by size, shape and colour
- comparing and contrasting using smaller / bigger, taller / shorter etc.
- reciting numbers up to 20, counting objects up to 5

Primary School:

- acquiring addition and subtraction skills involving double figures
- acquiring basic multiplication and division skills
- retaining basic maths knowledge such as times tables
- numbers 'jumping around' on the paper and/or 'in their head'
- telling the time using a standard faced clock
- understanding the concept of direction - left / right, forwards / backwards
- a continued reliance on counting on fingers

High School:

- low self-esteem in maths, a 'can't do attitude'
- understanding key measurement concepts such as temperature, currency, speed
- learning the meaning of higher-level maths symbols
- breaking down a more advanced maths problem into sequential steps
- acquiring skills that can be used over the long term without constant re-teaching

As with dyslexia, the key questions to consider when investigating further should centre around discrepancies:

> Are they good at speaking and listening, but cannot process or explain a Maths problem in verbal or written format?

> Are they reported to be good at working with words and phrases (i.e. higher attainment grades at English, History etc) but struggle to read numbers and Maths symbols?

> Are they visually creative (i.e. higher attainment grades at art, graphics etc.) but struggle when working with specific, more complicated measurements?

> Do they have a generally good attitude to learning but are often late to lessons / appointments, cannot remember a schedule such as a school timetable and struggle with time management in terms of estimating how long something might take?

> Are they sociable and competitive when taking part in sports and word-based board games such as Scrabble etc. but avoid strategy-based games such as chess, Monopoly etc.?

>Are they outgoing and independent but tend to get lost easily when in an unfamiliar place, struggling to follow a map or list of directions etc.?

If a young person (or adult) presents in this way, the question then is what can be done to formally identify and document their difficulties as a route to accessing further support. I have yet to come across a widely-used, professionally-recognized screener - and much like dyslexia, I think there is a reluctance these days to assign the label formally in any case. Usually the identification process involves running a range of ability and attainment tests that highlight possible discrepancies across their core skills set - and in turn, provide a signpost to the 'dyscalculia' difficulty section of the SEN library. I typically use the WRAT-4 Maths Computation subtest, the NNAT, the BPVS and then compare these with the results of our routine testing of reading, spelling and comprehension. A simple conversation with the student about their school timetable, asking them to traffic-light it, can also prove invaluable in unpicking specific issues.

There are dyscalculia-specific products out there, such as GL Assessment's Dyscalculia Screener, which seek to hone in on identifying specific underlying skills required for numeracy / Maths. The tasks tend to focus on:

- Place-Value - the use of number-lines within the mind's eye - i.e. a learner with a dyscalculia-type difficulty tends to not be able to spatially represent the distance between two numbers, such as 200 to 800 and from there find a number in-between.

- Visual-Estimation - the method, and subsequent accuracy and speed, with which a person can count - i.e. a learner with a dyscalculia-type difficulty tends to count a collection of dots one by one whereas a more neurotypical learner will count them in chunks of 3 to 5 at a time.

- Symbol-Meaning - distinguishing between sizes of numbers, according to their value - i.e. for a learner with a dyscalculia-type difficulty, numbers that are written in different physical sizes will be easily distinguished as smaller / larger whereas numbers that are written normally but are slightly different in value - such as 7 and 9 or 11, 437 and 11, 436 - will be harder to distinguish. (see picture below)

Credit: Nature 150–153, (10 January 2013)


- General Arithmetic - the learner's general arithmetic skills are assessed with reference then made to their history of numeracy / Maths acquisition in comparison to other subject and skill areas.

But even through use of this kind of screening process, it is likely to lead to an assessor committing only to a 'dyscalculia-type difficulties' commentary. This is not necessarily a problem because ultimately what any assessment for specific learning difficulties / differences should be seeking first and foremost, rather than a diagnostic label, is a way forward.

Within my own setting, where we have identified students to be presenting with dyscalculia-type difficulties, whilst we insist on not branding them as 'dyscalculic', we do use the information we have to advise our Maths teachers - and the general population of teachers - of their learner profile. A collection of the kind of advice strategies we draw upon can be found here on TES Resources.

From there, where necessary, our Learning Support Team provides extra tuition, tending to rely on Ronit Bird's 'Dyscalculia Toolkit' which coaches students in numeracy skills via a multi-sensory approach similar to that which underpins specialist dyslexia programmes. We have also dipped into books such as Edward H. Julius's 'Rapid Maths Tricks' which outlines alternative ways around common Maths problems.

Over the coming weeks I intend to read around more on dyscalculia with a view to seeing if there is more we can look to do for the 'minority of the minority' within my current setting. I'll share any other ideas I come across - and welcome any suggestions from readers, either publicly via the comments section or privately via the contact page.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Richard Lederer on the quirks of English...

Searching around the internet for various bits and pieces I could use in a training session on addressing speech & language needs in schools, I found the following funny little passage by the author Richard Lederer - you might want to share it with your colleagues and students to highlight just how difficult English can be to master!

"English is the most widely used language in the history of our planet. One in every seven human beings around the globe can speak English. And more than half of the world's books and three-quarters of international mail are written in this crazy tongue. 

Of all languages, English has the largest vocabulary - perhaps as many as two million words - and of course it has one of the noblest bodies of literature. 

However, let's face it! English is a crazy language! 

For example, there is no egg in eggplant, and will you find neither pine nor apple in a pineapple. Hamburgers are not made from ham, and French Fries were not invented in France.

We find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square, and a guinea pig is neither a pig nor is it from Guinea. 

And why is it that a writer writes, but fingers do not fing?

If the plural of tooth is teeth, shouldn't the plural of booth be beeth? One goose, two geese, so one moose, two meese?

So tell me, if the teacher taught - why isn't it that the preacher praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables - what does a humanitarian eat? 

And if you wrote a letter - perhaps you also bote your tongue? 

Sometimes it makes you wonder if all English speakers should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane. We ship by truck and send cargo by ship? And have you noticed that we have noses that run and feet that smell? 

How can a fat chance and a slim chance be the same thing? 

And where are the people who "are spring chickens," or who would actually "hurt a fly"? 

You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language in which your house can burn up as it burns down, in which you fill in a form by filling it out and in which your alarm clock goes off by going on.

English was invented by people, not by computers, and it reflects the creativity of the human race (which, of course, is not really a race at all). That is why, when stars are out they are visible, but when the lights are out they are invisible. 

And why, when I wind up my watch I start it, but when I wind up this essay I end it."

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Top Ten Quotes on Language and Learning

I've recently been working on some resources to assist teachers and support staff when working with students who experience speech & language difficulties. Here are some interesting quotes to get you thinking about the importance of language in the learning process...

>> "Language exerts hidden power, like a moon on the tides." - Rita Mae Brown 

 >> "The limits of my language means the limits of my world." - Ludwig Wittgenstein 

 >> "A riot is the language of the unheard." - Martin Luther King, Jr. 

 >> "Language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow." - Oliver Wendell Holmes 

 >> "Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about." - Benjamin Lee Whorf 

 >> “Language is not a genetic gift, it is a social gift. Learning a new language is becoming a member of the club -the community of speakers of that language.” ‒ Frank Smith 

 >> "The quality of our thoughts is bordered on all sides by our facility with language." - J. Michael Straczynski 

 >> "Language ought to be the joint creation of poets and manual workers." - George Orwell 

>> "[Language is] really a pretty amazing invention if you think about it. Here I have a very complicated, messy, confused idea in my head. I'm sitting here making grunting sounds and hopefully constructing a similar messy, confused idea in your head that bears some analogy to it.” - Danny Hillis

And perhaps most importantly:

 >> "Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand." - Karl A. Menninger