You are Allowed to Disagree with the Speaker

I went to a workshop on dyscalculia yesterday. It was called, ”The Neuropsychology of Mathematics: An Introduction to the FAM” by Dr. Steven Feifer.  If you don’t know exactly what dyscalculia means, don’t worry; the general consensus is even experts are not totally sure what it means either. If we look at the Greek we see it most likely means something along the lines of “trouble with calculations” in the same way that dyslexia means “trouble with language.” 

Dr. Feifer was a fantastic presenter.  He was warm, open, engaging and had some very relevant and useful research to share.  Dr. Feifer shared data gathered in 2015 by the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress, which according to their website is the, “largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America's students know and can do in various subject areas”).

The 2015 NAEP assessment data showed that fully 60% of 4th graders are below grade level in mathematics.  If you are curious, data showed 67% of 8th graders are below grade level in mathematics.  

From 2013 to 2015 NAEP data shows a “statistically significant” drop in scores overall in mathematics, for both 4th and 8th graders.  It is Dr. Feifer’s opinion that this is not because of the Common Core. 

But as Dr. Feifer said, “you are allowed to disagree with the speaker.”

The first thing that I would like to say, before any of the other things that I am going to say, is that I was genuinely pleased and moved and felt so validated when he said that.  He said it in a mock whisper, at least that’s my memory, in a way where I was instantly like, oh-man-I-bet-this-guy-is-a-great-dad-and-awesome-with-kids. “You are allowed to disagree with the speaker. “  Yes. Thank you, Dr. Feifer.  I am on board with disagreeing with you and that being okay.

So here are some things I disagree with: first, that there were a grand total of two slides entitled “General Dyscalculia Interventions.” Second, all of the following statements presented as said Dyscalculia Interventions.

“Teach students to think in ‘pictures’ and well as ‘words’”  

Okay, yes, agree totally every kiddo has to have their math picture. But you can’t just say, “teach students to think in pictures.” How?  How do you teach someone to think in pictures?  This is a how question, not a “just do.”  It’s nothing short of an art form helping a child establish and sustain their perceptual picture of mathematics that aligns with their unique processing style.  You cannot simply tell a room of educators to teach students to think in pictures without supporting them in what they, as educators, would need to know in order to embark on that endeavor.

“Construct incorrect answers to equations and have students discriminate correct vs. incorrect responses.”

Let me use a language arts analogy here: would we give a reading LD student a book full of some words spelled incorrectly and some spelled correctly, ask him to read the book, and then when he gets stuck on a word ask him if that’s a correct word or an incorrect word?  I think the answer to that question would be no.  Would we expect that a reasonable intervention for spelling would ever include teaching a LD child how to spell by detecting teacher-created misspelled words vs. correctly spelled words? 

“Have students explain their strategies when problem solving to expand problem solving options.” 

I could best see this suggestion as something that might be a helpful accommodation (not intervention) for an individual who benefits from processing verbally.  It has been my clinical experience that only some students with math LD have enough working memory space left to explain what they are doing as they are solving a problem.  Also having a student explain their thinking, even if it does lead to a rich, expansive conversation, is not an intervention.  At least not in my opinion.

“Teach estimation skills to allow for effective previewing of response.”

I think it’s totally on point to teach estimation skills.  It has been my experience also that dyslexics are great at estimating, which makes a lot of sense since estimating is a task us right hemisphere dominant people often excel at.  However, we need to be so careful not to mix exact math (left hemisphere dominant), where there is no room for even the slightest variation in answer, and approximate math, where there is room for variation/interpretation/wiggle room.  It is a mistake absolutely to encourage kids to do both at the same time, especially as an intervention for math LD.

“Freedom from anxiety in class setting.  Allow extra time for assignments and eliminate fluency drills.”

Here we have a heartfelt wish for math LD kids and two accommodations, not interventions for dyscalculia.

“Teach skip counting to learn multiplication facts.”

As my teacher often says, the multiplication and division facts are the biggest development in all of elementary mathematics.  A math fact is something that you know so well you are able to retrieve it instantly, or almost instantly, depending on your unique processing.  It is the opposite of counting, which is not developing fact retrieval but rather developing counting.  Also good luck skip counting by 7s.

“Use graph paper to line up equations.”

This is an accommodation, not an intervention for dyscalculia.

It’s nice to have a corner of the internet where you can disagree.  It’s even nicer to know that when you are your own boss and live in America you can basically just be honest all the time.  I don’t need to tow the party line for a school, or various publishing companies.  The only people I answer to are every single one of my amazing families who already see the value in the work we do together. Together we keep fighting the good fight, and celebrate our collective permission to disagree with the speaker.