Hundreds of education professionals gathered at the Lincoln Center campus on May 11 for the fourth Annual Assessment Conference, “Differential Diagnosis of and Interventions for Learning Difficulties,” co-sponsored by the Graduate School of Education (GSE), Pearson Assessments, and Wiley Publishers.

One session at this year’s event challenged participants’ notions of what underlies so-called learning disabilities and difficulties.

According to Michele Mazzocco, Ph.D., professor at the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Child Development, learning difficulties—particularly in math—often have more to do with attitude than cognitive ability. For instance, unspoken stereotypes about gender differences in math ability or even a teacher’s own anxiety about math can have an impact on math performance.

“Think about the cumulative effects of building attitudes about math over the years,” she said. “Some [of us]need more effort, some people need more scaffolding, but the fact that effort is required is not an indication that we’re bad at mathematics.”

As Mazzocco pointed out, these attitudes are far-reaching and long-lasting. The frustration felt in childhood sticks and becomes an adulthood mantra.

“As a society, we have decided that it’s okay to be bad at math, and that it’s not something shameful,” she said. “Can you imagine having the same level of ease saying things like, ‘I can’t read worth a hill of beans!’?”

Attitudes toward math aren’t the only hindrance for students, though. Math difficulty can stem from a number of underlying problems, Mazzocco said, for instance, whether students simply memorize procedures rather than understand math conceptually, or whether they experience hindrances unrelated to math, such as in language or memory.

With this in mind, educators not only have to change their own attitudes about the discipline, but also have to frame a different approach to helping children who are having math difficulties.

“You wouldn’t call up your physician and say, ‘I have a headache. What should I do?’ Your physician would need to know more: Why do you have a headache? Are you dehydrated? Did you hit your head? Have you been up for three days cramming for an exam?” Mazzocco said. “Math difficulties are the same way. There’s not just one program to suit all problems.”

“It’s so important, but it’s something that is glossed over—surprisingly, since it’s important in children’s early education and it’s important throughout life,” she added. “I challenge you to think about any part of the day that you’re not using mathematics.”

Also at Friday’s conference, GSE presented keynote speaker George McCloskey, Ph.D., with the “Excellence in Assessment” award. McCloskey, professor and director of school psychology research at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, received the award “in recognition of extraordinary ‘intelligent testing’ contributions to the practice of psychological and neuropsychological assessment.”

— Joanna Klimaski