More than one way to teach math |

More than one way to teach math

Helen and Martin Weiss

Why is math so hard for some of us? There are many theories. 

Some researchers have noted that there seems to be a genetic advantage for males when learning math.

Since the capacity to solve problems is often determined by the ability to visualize the meaning of language problems in three dimensions, math is a highly specific kind of skill.

The basic difference between males and females is that the male has an X and a Y chromosome while the female has two X chromosomes. Thus the female must inherit the ability to visualize spatial problems via the X chromosome that is inherited from each parent. If either parent has difficulty in this area, the girl may be at a disadvantage. However, males have one X and one Y chromosome, so the ability to visualize can come from either parent.

Other experts feel that biological, environmental and educational factors contribute to the way boys and girls approach problem-solving.

Math demands the ability to understand abstractions and solve problems in a logical, orderly fashion. Learning math is a step-by-step process with new skills built upon the mastery of previous skills.

If there are “missing stitches” in concept development, they will become a gaping hole in a student’s comprehension, and the student will have great difficulty moving to a more difficult level.  

Jacquie and Jamie are fraternal twins. Their parents brought them to our office for educational evaluation with an emphasis on their math problems.

Jacquie had great difficulty with problems involving spatial judgment and reasoning. Time-rate-distance problems, basic geometry and measurement plagued her. When she was given a language problem involving basic computation, she was able to turn her understanding into correct math operations.

On the other hand, her twin brother Jamie was able to solve the problems requiring spatial judgment and reasoning but became frustrated and gave up when asked to turn language problems into mathematical operations.

Two 13-year-olds of similar aptitude from a similar environment demonstrated different difficulties. 

For example, Jacquie had great difficulty recognizing the comparative values of fractions, yet she could handle problems involving decimals. 

Meanwhile, Jamie understood the parts-to-whole concept of fractions but had trouble locating the proper place to put a decimal point in solving problems. Neither of them could deal with percentages.

Beware of a math instructional program that teaches only one way. The Jacquies of the world may need diagrams and manipulative tools to solve spatial problems. The Jamies of the world may need to repeat language (story) problems aloud, or have some language explained to them in class or at home.

Students like Jacquie and Jamie, who have early difficulty in math, will often do anything possible to avoid taking future courses that require a basic knowledge of math. 

Dyscalculia, the name given to difficulty learning abstract concepts based on numbers, troubles approximately 5 to 8 percent of all students. 

Dr. David C. Geary, a psychology professor at the University of Missouri, said: “The human brain is not designed to accept math easily.”

Unfortunately, many youngsters are asked to learn math concepts before they are ready. 

Jacquie, described her feelings in math class: “I manage to get by in math, but panic when I know that I don’t really understand what I am doing and why I am doing it.” 

New strategies of neuroimaging suggest that girls and boys utilize different parts of the brain to learn math. 

If the problems are word problems, spatial problems or those of mathematical calculation relying largely on memory for facts, then different areas of the brain are called into service. 

Boys tend to develop spatial and visual abilities faster, while girls are more likely to develop language skills earlier. If we teach both sexes math exactly at the same rate and the same way we are denying the basic facts of their development.

Flexible teaching strategies are the only way to reach all learning styles and different kinds of minds. Make sure your child can take advantage of these options before he or she fails.

For further information contact Helen Ginandes Weiss, M.A, and Martin S. Weiss, M.A., learning consultants, via e-mail at or by writing to P.O. Box 38, Twin Lakes, CO 81251. Call them at (719) 486-5800.

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