Sunday, September 27, 2009

Can a testosterone deficiency hinder mathematics learning?

We’re all going to get in a fight. –Pink, “So What”

Bringing up gender differences in learning is a great way to start a “spirited” discussion. Learning styles researcher Rita Dunn (2002) contends boys and girls tend to exhibit different learning style strengths. Boys learn visually, tactually and kinesthetically. Girls tend to be auditory. Is this because Sister is given a doll, while Brother is given a model airplane to assemble? Mark G. McGee (1979) surmised back in the dark ages of the past century, “. . . a minimum level of androgen, specifically testosterone, is required for normal expression of spatial (one component of visual perception) abilities.”

Mathematics is a visual pursuit. Processing the abstraction of numbers on a page requires visual perception. A deficit in any of the visual perception components must be considered a learning disability affecting performance in mathematics. The auditory child may not even have copied the problem correctly on her work sheet. Ask me how I know. I am unspeakably grateful to the Probabilities and Statistics instructor who understood this and accepted my “wrong” answer on a final exam. Right answer for the numbers I’d written down. Just not the right answer for the numbers he had on the test! Funny, but I still feel guilty about that “A.” I understood the concepts, just didn’t process those numbers and the man offered “grace.”

A child with average eyesight spends her days processing visually. She responds to the color and beauty of her world. She becomes adept at “reading” emotions on the faces around her. These visual perception strengths developed through cultural socialization may be capitalized on and developed. Specific experiences may be provided to develop the ability to focus on the abstractions of numbers, geometric figures on a page. Evidence of the narrowing of the gender gap in mathematics performance, probably due in part to heightened parent and educator awareness since the 1970’s, is cause for optimism. That girls, given similar experiences and opportunities, can succeed at mathematics as well as boys is no longer questioned. To assume that all girls now have those equal experiences and opportunities would be irresponsible.

Sheila Tobias says, “The teaching of math . . . suffers from being all scales and not enough music.” (2002) Amen! If providing a variety of experiences—including a good picture book now and then—in the mathematics classroom can draw an auditory child into the circle, I’m not sure I care whether it was nature or nurture that held her outside. Of course, I’m always delighted to go a few rounds.
Also delighted to report you can pre-order The Emperor’s Army by Virginia Walton Pilegard, illus. by Adrian Tans, my latest mathematical adventure picture book, from ;) Flipkart happens to be in Bangalore, Karnataka, India. I was delighted to find their ad!

Dunn, R. “Learning styles: Theory, research, and practice,” National Forum of Applied Educational Research Journal, 13.1 (2002) 3-22
McGee, M. G. Human Spatial Abilities. New York: Praeger, 1979.
Tobias, Sheila. “Rethinking Teaching Math, Science: E-interview with Sheila Tobias,” interview by Ellen R. Delisio, Education World. 12 December 2002

Monday, September 7, 2009

A Good Picture Book Helps Kids Learn Three Ways!

Some principles that can be helpful in ensuring that struggling learners maximize their capacity in school are: look for the struggling learner’s positives, don’t let what’s broken extinguish what works, pay attention to relevance, go for powerful learning, teach up, and see with the eyes of love.

Carol A. Tomlinson

Tomlinson’s attitude toward teaching warms the hackles of my heart. My goal in writing for children is to provide math concepts in the guise of an adventure story with auditory, kinesthetic and visual clues. Children learn by touching, listening and talking, and by looking. Walter Barbe, a pioneer in the study of learning styles, believes most children rely heavily on only one of these learning modalities. Maturity and experience seem to explain why more adults tend to exhibit mixed learning styles. “We are born,” Barbe states, “with certain characteristics that contribute to our later learning strengths. The experiences we encounter early in life, such as nutrition, stimulation and interactions with other children and adults, may also influence which learning channels will be strongest.” The wise teacher does not value one learning style above the others—although being able to process information visually does put a child at an unfair advantage in most classrooms. I love Tomlinson’s idea of looking for a child’s positives with eyes of love! I interpret that to mean celebrating children’s individual learning styles and presenting the same information in different ways.

I am an auditory learner. You suppose that’s why I’m a story teller? No surprise that unless I’m careful, when I teach I talk and talk and talk and talk. I remember one bright-eyed little boy who struggled mightily in my class until I learned to stand quietly by his desk at the end of a lesson and simply work the problem on a piece of paper while he watched. I had talked the poor kid into a daze because my teaching style didn’t match his learning style. I also remember high school geometry (a subject requiring visual/spatial learning skills) with some angst. The teacher would finish each lesson by asking, “Does everyone understand but Walton?” And sure enough, Virginia Walton didn’t understand. Maturity provided experiences to strengthen my visual learning modality. Dealing with my own visual learning deficit made me a crusader for providing information in ways children with differentiated learning styles can process.

For an overview of learning styles, I recommend two fine websites:


Barbe, W.B. Growing Up Learning. Washington D.C.: Acropolis Books Ltd., 1985.

Tomlinson, Carol A. How To Differentiate Instruction In Mixed-Ability Classrooms. 2nd ed. New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., 2005.