MathTech: Increasing empathy for students with disabilities


by Kate Fanelli

Kate Fanelli

Kate Fanelli

I recently participated in a LiveChat through Sevenzo, a non-profit, solution-oriented, teacher-focused organization focused on making sure every student has a sense of belonging at school. The topic of the LiveChat was “Accessibility, Inclusion and Social Justice”. After an hour, the theme was clear. Empathy. How do we create accessible learning environments where every child feels a sense of belonging? Empathy. The more we understand, identify with, and find commonality with our students with disabilities, the more we will achieve our goals of inclusion and accessibility.

Technology can help us with this. This month I present you with a 3-step recipe to begin, rejuvenate, or continue on your journey to accessible math instruction.

Step 1: Understand what happens if we do not meet our goals for students.

The PBS Misunderstood Minds mathematics site describes the implications for students who experience difficulty with math instruction. Go to the site and click on “Try it yourself.”

Simulated mathematics activities provide the reader with experiences similar to those that students who struggle experience all the time in their math classrooms. Articles and definitions provide additional information on why students struggle, the complexities of math learning, and what parents and teachers can do to help their students. The “Difficulties with Mathematics” page has a startling list of facts and statistics about students with math learning disabilities and their achievement and postsecondary life.

Step 2: Learn more about struggling in mathematics.

In his Divisible by 3 blog, Andrew Stadel set up a Desmos activity to help his students, and teachers, understand “productive struggle.” Productive struggle is a commonly used phrase in math education that describes a state of discomfort that leads to learning. Learning is uncomfortable, and it is only through productive struggle that learning will happen. Letting students struggle through difficult problems is often thought of as productive struggle, and therefore a necessary, if not common, part of a math lesson.

However, if you followed Step 1, you now know there are students experiencing non-productive struggle, with negative consequences.

Go to “Welcome to Productive Struggle” (you can play without signing in) and answer the eight questions for yourself. It does not take long. Your responses are anonymous. They will, hopefully, help you reflect on how productively your students are struggling. Then, go to the Productive Struggle blog part 2, and see how your reflections aligned with Mr. Stadel’s, who also has the benefit of seeing 100 responses to those questions at the time he wrote the blog. What feels like productive struggle for some, is not so productive for others. What you think, feel and do when you’re frustrated may be very different than your students, so to even say people experience frustration does not have universal meaning.

Step 3: Learn more about what your students may be experiencing.

So, you have read at PBS Misunderstood Minds about the stark future for students who persistently struggle with math. You experienced some of that frustration yourself in their simulated activities. Then you analyzed what that struggle means for you, and saw hundreds of data points of what struggle means for people who are not you.

Now go to Mathlanding’s collection of professional learning resources to learn more about students with math learning disabilities. Learning more about how students’ brains work, how that affects their learning, and what that means for your teaching will complete your journey towards deeper empathy and greater action on behalf of your students.

Follow (Mi)2 on Facebook ( and/or Alt+Shift on Twitter (@AltShiftEd). Contact Kate at


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