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Analysis of the Learning Disabilities in Math

The second chapter addresses in details the definition, classification and analysis of the Learning Disabilities in Math.




Analysis of the Learning Disabilities in Mathematics

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1. MLD will be described illustrating how they manifest themselves and how can they be identified

Neurobiological basis could be the cause of math disability, which is considered a neurodevelopmental disorder, but math disability could also be a consequence of external factors. An evidence, thus negative, of how social environment affect the human body was already given in very ancient times by what is now called affective deprivation disorder, whose effects have been studied since the 1970s by Lytt Gardner in children's deprivation dwarfism or psychosocial short stature (PSS). Epigenetics, which is a very recent discipline, it is demonstrating with scientific evidence how socio-cultural factors can affect the organism and its functioning, to cause heritable phenotype changes, modifying the activation of certain genes, without altering the genetic code sequence of DNA. Since environmental experience modulates the levels and nature of epigenetic signals, they are considered fundamental in mediating the ability of the environment to regulate the genome. Epigenetics plays a fundamental role in all processes of neural reorganization or restructuring, including those that preside over brain plasticity. Crucial epigenetic changes are also involved in the regulation of learning and memory processes, environmental enrichment is also capable of curing learning and memory deficits. Therefore, multiple theories exist as follows:

  • Core deficit hypothesis

  • Deficits in general domain hypothesis

  • Deficits in domain-specific math areas

  • Procedural deficit hypothesis


These theories have their basis on dysfunction in specific brain regions mainly implicated in math processes. Furthermore, researches in educational psychology and general education supports the affective filter hypothesis, which is a concept relate to second-language learning theory and it regards a learning impediment triggered by negative emotional reactions to one's own environment. Some feelings, such as fear, anxiety and boredom, interfere with the learning process according to the affective filter hypothesis. Those negative emotions act as a filter between the speaker and the listener, reducing the amount of information that the listener can understand, thus preventing its efficient processing.

The terms used to describe students who experience problems with math, vary in the studies and regulations on the basis of the definition themselves of the target groups and according to the implementation of research instruments and tackling policy. The broadly used definition Mathematical Learning Difficulty (MLD) includes a wide variety of deficits, mostly affecting the area of arithmetic and thus arithmetic problem solving: generally speaking, MLD is used to refer to learning difficulties in all mathematical domains. Mathematical difficulties experienced by children depend on different factors varying from poor instruction to socio-cultural environment, with a broader meaning than the definition of math disability (MD). Not all students with mathematical difficulties will have MD, whose hypothetical paradigm refers to an inherent weakness in mathematical cognition independent from sociocultural or environmental causes. Therefore, since there are no standards to confirm the presence of learning difficulties (LDs) in math, the variations of the diagnostic criteria and different vision between the educational and medical systems responsible for taking care of these students must be taken in consideration as part of the teaching device.

The socio-cultural environment in which the students and the teachers are inserted, strongly influences the learning achievements, because a diagnosis of a disease instead of a difficulty depends on the respective official definition, thus radically changing the tackling perspective and testing procedures and reflects on the effectiveness of the efforts to improve the quality of the teaching/learning process. It is important, therefore for us to understand that the context influences both groups of the students and the teachers, so first of all we should identify the environment where teachers use terms like dyscalculia rather than poor math achievement to address children. The issue of a definition is still in progress, in Italy and most western countries the specificity of MLD diagnosis is included in a general category of ‘Specific Learning Disabilities’ (SLD) along with all the learning disabilities, students are therefore considered with ‘Special Educational Needs’ (SEN).

The World Health Organization International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems 10th edition (IChD-10) implements the classification of ‘F81.2 Specific disorder of arithmetical skills’, that “involves a specific impairment in arithmetical skills, which is not solely explicable on the basis of general mental retardation or of grossly inadequate schooling”. Diagnostic tests, such as IChD 10 (WHO, 2003), or DSM 5 (2013), aim to identify subjects with Math disorders or Mathematical Learning disabilities as having specific difficulties in learning or in mathematics learning, based on medical models. Instead, others perspectives, such as European educational community, uses a broader concept of students with mathematical learning difficulties referring to any group of students with low achievement in mathematics (2013): “Low achievement is the situation where a child fails to acquire basic skills while they do not have any identified disability and have cognitive skills within the normal range. In those cases, low achievement may be considered as a failure of the education system”.

“The deficit concerns mastery of basic computational skills of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division (rather than of the more abstract mathematical skills involved in algebra, trigonometry, geometry, or calculus)”. At the same time, the diagnostic guidelines raise the awareness that “Arithmetical disorders have been studied less than reading disorders, and knowledge of antecedents, course, correlates, and outcome is quite limited”. We will use MLDs to refer to mathematical learning difficulties in all domains, which is to be considered multidimensional bringing into the picture mathematical domains other than the ones mentioned above. For example connected with Memory such as inhibition of irrelevant information from entering in the Working Memory; executive mechanisms connected with Reasoning such as Entailment; Inhibition (affective filter); Updating relevant information, shifting from one operation-strategy to another, Updating and strategic planning, Decision-making, Semantic memory; Visuo-Spatial Working Memory, and Visuo-Spatial reasoning/perception.

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The SMiLD project is funded by the European Commission through the Italian National Agency for the Erasmus+ Programme. This web site reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.