A head for numbers

24 Feb 2011

For up to five per cent of the population, checking the time, counting change at the cash register or practically anything else to do with numbers can be a nightmare.

However, leading research into the specific learning disability called developmental dyscalculia, dubbed “number blindness”, shows that being unable to put two and two together is down to biology – not poor education, low intelligence or lack of effort.

“Recent research has identified differences in the brains of dyscalculatic learners, suggesting that there is a core deficit in the ability to represent even very simple number concepts,” says cognitive neuropsychologist Professor Brian Butterworth from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London.

According to Professor Butterworth, dyscalculia is at least as prevalent as dyslexia, or “word blindness”, and possibly more disruptive to life outcomes.

However, the hidden nature of this disorder means it remains poorly recognised and understood.

Shedding some light on the topic, in February, QBI and UQ’s School of Psychology hosted a visit by Professor Butterworth, with psychologists, neuroscientists and educators attending his lecture at QBI on ‘the science of failing to learn arithmetic’.

Professor Butterworth discussed recent research that identifies the causes preventing sufferers from understanding basic mathematical problems.

Uncovering the different manifestations of this deficit not only allows those with the disorder to be identified, but also offers an opportunity to help sufferers learn maths using structured teaching and adaptive software.

According to Professor Pankaj Sah, the visit is timely given the newly formed Science of Learning Centre within QBI which aims to combine developments in neuroscience with those in education and psychology to understand learning and memory formation in humans.

“This talk will be the first in an ongoing series focusing on how humans learn and the most optimal ways to deliver teaching in the classroom,” he says.