Posted by: Alexandre Borovik | January 1, 2009

Damn the Three Times Table

A personal document from a sufferer of discalculia, from website of The Dyscalculia and Dylexia Interest Group. Should be a compulsory reading for anyone who teaches or attempts to teach mathematics, at any level.  A few fragments:

For as long as I can remember, numbers have not been my friend. Words are easy as there can be only so many permutations of letters to make sense. Words do not suddenly divide, fractionalise, have remainders or turn into complete gibberish because if they do, they are gibberish. Even treating numbers like words doesn’t work because they make even less sense. Of course numbers have sequences and patterns but I can’t see them.  Numbers are slippery.

…  I am now 36 and the memories of school and maths-related problems still haunt me. It was a horrible, horrible time. Maths became a bogeyman for me for years as I was clearly doing it on purpose; no-one can get a degree or a post-grad when they can’t count, surely?

… Even now I cannot tell the time on a 24-hour clock, use any button on a video recorder other than ‘play,’ read music OR recite my 3 times table. I get as far as 3×4 =12 and counting on my fingers begins. Only now I’m an adult, I can count with them in full view as no-one is going to slap my fingers or I’ll poke their eye out.

… If I look at a 24-hour clock, I don’t see the time. I only see the time it isn’t. I’ll be waiting for it to say ‘15.25’ (collect children from school time ) and unless it says that, then it is irrelevant.

… Even if I have a clock in front of me where I can count each minute, time on the right side of the clock is ‘now’ and on the other it’s ‘non-time.’ Any time on the left side is impossible to understand and even counting each minute, I can’t put the hands to say ‘17.47’ That whole ‘forty-something’ area is a black hole of confusion no matter how many times it is explained to me. Time is for other people.



  1. This week’s Economist magazine has an article about discalculia and children’s number sense, including a discussion of their possible genetic basis. See here:

  2. This is totally off-topic, sorry for that…
    Have people thought about why is there often an anisotropy in perception and learning? Why is it easier to translate from a foreign language to the native one (rather than the opposite)? (In the early stages of learning the language, of ciurse.) Why do streets in town often have a “preferred direction”?
    That is, if you walk along a street, one of the directions feels like the “natural” one, and the other is the “opposite”?
    I am not sure what an answer to this question can look like. Maybe it’s more interesting to think of other examples instead…

  3. Math teachers should follow all the threads on too – tons of great advice from dyscalculics.

  4. tykke — thanks for a link. I wish to ask a bit more outrageous question: may computer-phobia have neurological roots, similar to dyslexia and dyscalculia?

  5. Another Peter: you raise a very interesting question. In the great dyslexia debate, one striking example should be given greater prominence: in Russian, it is much easier to read than to write. I hope to be able to write on this in some detail soon.

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