When I saw this book at the library, I was drawn directly to it. Why? For one thing, my post on dyscalculia and teaching math is one of my most popular posts ever. For another, I am always seeking good children’s books with mathematics themes to enhance my teaching or recommend to students. Finally, given that the theme of dyscalculia is such a hot topic, I thought I might be able to learn more about it, as I have done with books about people on the autistic spectrum, such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
So it was with great eagerness that I devoured this book. And it is with mixed feelings that I write this review. Therefore, I thought it would be best to write it in two parts, the first about its literary value, and the second about its value in understanding what dyscalculia means.
Part 1: Literary Value
This book has a lot going for it. For one thing, the characters are all unique and unconventional. While some other reviewers have criticized them as being too strange, I liked them because such people do exist, and reading about characters like these portrayed in positive ways can help promote tolerance and understanding.
Another strength is the plot, which compelled me to keep reading. I found it gripping, moving, and believable in its own world. It was also well written, which is only to be expected from a National Book Award winner. I enjoyed the story tremendously.
Part 2: Representation of Dyscalculia
First of all, a disclaimer: I am not an expert in dyscalculia. I have done some reading, and I have worked in math for many years with a variety of students, some of whom struggle with math due to poor math teaching or different learning styles, and a few who genuinely could not work with numbers. Some had parents who hired me as a private tutor precisely because they had such a struggle with math.
That being said, I do understand some things about dyscalculia. I know that it can result in the inability to have number sense, to know how to do some calculations one day and forget the next, perhaps to have no sense of time or money, poor sense of direction, and/or not much working memory. You can read more about it in my entry titled “Dyscalculia and Teaching Math.”
Therefore, I expected to see at least one of these struggles shown in the main character. Instead, Mike was able to multiply and divide large numbers in his head. For example, on p. 229:
“Good luck getting twenty dollars in one week! Even I could do the math – that was almost three thousand a day.”
Mike was able to keep appointments on time, manipulated numbers in his head, and while he got lost in a new town a few times, who doesn’t? The inability to read maps does not necessarily imply dyscalculia, and he always managed to find his way in the end.
The central conflict of the story is Mike’s relationship with his father, who is a genius in the math and sciences, and who wants his son to succeed in these too. However, the father has a great deal of trouble empathizing, relating to his son, understanding people in general, and being able to converse outside of his own areas of expertise. In short, Erskine has done a beautiful job of characterizing a man with a recognizably typical autistic spectrum disorder, without ever naming it. Mike’s great-aunt Moo even describes oddities in the father’s childhood behavior to confirm to us that these strange behaviors aren’t only due to grief from Mike’s mother’s death, or some other lifetime trauma.
Rather than dyscalculia, Erskine has characterized a boy who can manage the basics of math, but for whom advanced math holds no interest or appeal. That is true for a much larger segment of the population than those with dyscalculia! If the character did have dyscalculia, I wish she would have done as excellent a job in showing it in the character as she did with the father’s autistic behaviors. Granted, dyscalculia isn’t as well understood or “popular,” but I really think the book would have benefitted from an expert’s review before publication. I think marketing it as a book that addresses the topic of dyscalculia is misleading and could lead to a lot of popular misdiagnosis or self diagnosis.
Since I can’t recommend this book for learning about dyscalculia, here are a few resources I can recommend. Please add yours below in the comments. Also, if you disagree with my assessment, I would love to hear your point of view; I want to learn as much as I can about this topic.
MSNBC ran a piece on May 3 about third-grade students learning math using Singapore Math. This report outlines the importance of model drawing for problem solving, and of parent understanding to be on board with it.
The report is well done, except it gives the mistaken impression that the only thing that makes Singapore Math unique is the model drawing approach. I used to think that too, but now I know better; developing number bond-based numeracy is at least as essential, as are other elements of the curriculum.
The video shows progression from counting-on with touching, or the concrete stage, to the pictorial stage of being able to look at ten frames and see how many dots are present. Early in the video, it says the child is a kinesthetic learner, which may be true, but touching the objects is a natural early stage for anyone. So touching the objects doesn’t necessarily mean the child is a kinesthetic learner, but they may be at the concrete stage of learning a certain concept.
The clip does a nice job of showing how a teacher can help a student one-on-one (though I would have liked to see the teacher doing more guiding and less instructing), but what about teaching larger groups of children? There are always issues of permission when dealing with groups; however, I think it would help teachers if they could see how to use this in a larger setting. This is something I can model when offering professional development at a school visit.
A great article titled Waiting for Supermath came through my inbox today. It includes commentary on a video (below) of a third grader showing how she solves a four-digit addition problem using what she learns at school, or the Investigations curriculum, versus what her mother (a math intervention specialist) teaches at home, the traditional “stacking” algorithm.
What strikes me most about the video is that the first method, using the graphic model, shows what seems to me an overuse of the conceptual level of addition.
One strength of Singapore Math is that it starts with the conceptual level, which is essential, but then it moves to the abstract. In this process, the student starts with concrete representations of a problem, like manipulatives, then to pictorial or graphic representations, and finally to the algorithm, once they have mastered the concept.
But in the video, the girl starts out solving the problem with what could be drawings of base 10 blocks – and way too many of them. This is keeping her stuck at the concrete stage and leads to inefficiency and inaccuracy in her calculations.
It also strikes me, as the video points out in the end, that this method of teaching creates the myth that larger numbers are harder to calculate. Is this what we want to perpetuate in our students? I know if I had, I wouldn’t have had a group of second and third graders who decided, on their own, to learn 50 or more digits of pi.
One other note: I did use Investigations for one year in a middle school classroom. That was the year that some parents and I convinced the administration to finally adopt a curriculum that made sense. And what did they choose? Singapore Math!
We hear plenty of talk about teaching and reinforcing basic skills in math. Yes, these are very important, but computation skills aren’t what lead to breakthroughs and new discoveries; new ways of thinking do, right?
This young woman exemplifies real creativity in mathematical thinking. I find this so inspiring. Investigating mathematical principles through art: what a concept!
It snowed today – a lot – canceling all my plans and making it a perfect day to get things done at home. So I created the short movie below. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed making it! This one was taken – and highly modified – from a joke told in Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks.
Imagine my delight today to find out from one of my young writers that my students’ anthology from last year had been featured on the NaNoWriMo Young Writers’ Program blog in late October. I’m kind of surprised we didn’t hear about it sooner, but it’s inspiring to discover it now, since so many of us are struggling with word counts and the challenge of finishing our stories by the end of the month.
I came across this video from a Singapore tutor in my browsing today. It explains how to simplify an algebraic fraction problem. Interestingly, I solved a similar problem with my one of my algebra students last week. I like how this blogger breaks the steps down, but I would like her to explain more why the students made the mistake they made in the beginning. Quick quiz: do you know why? What is their misconception?