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Just Shoot Me

Bala, 28, Gordon Gekko in the making, pseudo-intellectual, cynic, bibliophile, obsessive compulsive ranter...

Teaching Math to the blind

June 27, 2007

I just had an interesting conversation with my mom. She has a couple of blind students in her Standard XI Business Maths class this year and is trying to work out a teaching methodology for them. The blind students have no exposure to math braille (though they have a working knowledge of English braille) and till now have managed math through memorizing most of the concepts. My mom's school isn't equipped with a braille printer (they traditionally rely on human assistants for the visually impaired for transcription and other assistance) and without braille explaining concepts like Matrices and Determinants is proving to be difficult.

My mom has been trying to teach them Matrix concepts using objects arranged into rows and columns on a flat surface. But the real challenge lies ahead when the curriculum gets to permutations and combinations, trigonometry, Analytical geometry (conics), partial fractions and probability. The toughest part will be to deal with calculus. She is going to try and get the WIMATS software and a braille embosser to the visually impaired resource lab at her school and produce higher secondary math material in braille. The red tape and the typical insensitivity of the people involved are going to be some problems - it is a TN Government aided school with a good amount of funding for special education. Hopefully things work out well.


posted by Bala, 11:38 PM


I came across your blog by searching for methods used to teach blind students mathematics. I am a university student with a bit of experience of teaching maths, admittedly never to a visually impaired student.

I started thinking about the problems they must face with the traditional teaching system, and then had this idea that being blind may give one the opportunity to form a purely conceptual understanding of mathematical concepts, without translating it to symbols on paper in between, which often causes confusion.

Probably the hardest bit of this idea is in the teacher's quarter - teaching something without using symbols when that's the only way you've ever learnt it would be amazingly difficult.

I'm sorry if this all seems to be off topic. I must admit that I was disappointed at the idea of Maths Braille - to my first glance it seemed to be a shortcut created by seeing people to remove the need for a new approach to teaching maths.

I'd be interested to hear what your mum thinks about this.

~ Anita
commented by Blogger Anita, 4:53 PM  

It's been a year since i posted this and now the students are in their second year of their higher secondary education (Tamil Nadu, like most of India, follows the 10+2 system).

According to my mom, the experience of teaching the students got easier after a couple of months. The visually impaired students seem to possess a great skill for understanding math concepts without Braille. They are much slower than the normal students, but with repeated instructions they do as well as the average student. They do extra classes, after school with my mom and their teaching assistants. (The school funds teaching assistants for special needs students). During the regular class hours, they simply note down everything that comes out of my mother's mouth (they learn the symbols involved and device their own notations for some concepts). And during the after class sessions, they sit together with my mum and their TA's (who are current grad students in Maths) and go over the day's teaching again. My mum says the trick is to let them talk and explain stuff to themselves, interfering only when they are way off the mark. They seem to be doing well - both of them have cleared their annual examinations with relative ease. Their experience so far with the Indian schooling system (and its heavy insistence on learning everything by rote) is helpful, since they have huge advantage in memorizing and recalling stuff. When it gets too tough or too big to do mentally, they decide to drop that particular area and move on.

Like you, my mother was disappointed with Math Braille. But i put that down to her unfamiliarity with Braille and general generational gap (she has been teaching math for over 30 years now and is nearing retirement. Thus her resistance to things technological is greater).

And here is the curriculum they have been learning for the past year
commented by Blogger Bala, 7:47 AM  
Thanks for the response. I realised after I commented that the post was a bit old, I found it via google.

I'm glad that they didn't have too much trouble. I'm also glad that there is a system that works for them. I understand how explaining it themselves can help - I always learn best when I'm teaching.

Do you think it's likely that any of them would go on to study Maths or a maths-heavy field at university? I understand that the subject is Business Maths, but the fields in the curriculum are very much the basics for further study in maths.

Thanks again for your response - I want to look into this further. Deeper maths is purely abstract and the symbols used to communicate it are like a language is to thoughts - Adequate in most situations, but difficulties can arise when translation is needed or there aren't appropriate words for the concept.
commented by Blogger Anita, 11:22 AM  
>>Do you think it's likely that any of them would go on to study Maths or a maths-heavy field at university?

Unfortunately No. A Business Maths credit in their higher secondary course is not enough to get into a Math (Bachelor of Science, with Maths/physics/chemistry as majors) or Engineering/Technology courses here. A Regular Math course credit is required for that. And the regular maths course is much more expansive and tougher than the business maths course.

However they can get into Economics and Commerce majors in their Under Graduate courses
commented by Blogger Bala, 1:14 PM  
Gosh. The material you linked to seems to be similar to the standard course in Australia that lets you get into a Science degree. It also seems to cover more areas than the Australian one does - I think it's great that the standard maths course has more in it.

I've come across many first year university students who have forgotten the topics listed in the Business Math document.

Thanks for the info.
commented by Blogger Anita, 1:26 PM  
>>Gosh. The material you linked to seems to be similar to the standard course in Australia that lets you get into a Science degree

:-)). Our curriculum designers have a well deserved reputation for masochism!. It is a bit excessive for business maths and the parent teacher associations have been protesting against it for over ten years with a little result.
The regular math curricullum is here, which used to be even more painful when i graduated a decade back. They have toned it down now.
commented by Blogger Bala, 1:44 PM  

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