Visually impaired UC mentor says loss of vision not a hindrance in teaching, learning Math

January 22, 2012

Mathematics is a subject that is challenging enough to teach or learn in any level with unimpaired physical faculties. But what if the sense of sight is taken out?

University of the Cordilleras (UC) teacher and graduate student Blair Heruela is proof that visual impairment is not a hindrance to wizardry in Mathematics. Visually impaired since birth, Heruela graduated Bachelor of Science in Education major in Mathematics from UC in April 2010 and subsequently passed the Licensure Examination for Teachers (LET) in September of 2010.

Heruela briefly taught Math at the Good News Academy and currently teaches the subject at the Northern Luzon Association of the Blind, Inc. (NLAB). He enrolled in UC's Master of Arts in Education program major in Mathematics in January of 2011. He said his experience as a student and later a teacher of Math provides him with an inclusive mindset on how Math should be taught to students with loss of vision.

Heruela, who attended UC's BSEd program as a regular student, said a practical rule of thumb for teachers with visually impaired students is to avoid the use of pronouns. "Do not say, 'this number divided by this number'," he said.

In a demonstration of methods in the "Teaching of Mathematics" class of UC graduate school Prof. Manuel Lupato last December 3, 2011, Heruela said the students' extent of visual impairment might have been congenital that to say, "Imagine three circles circumscribed and tangent to each other" is meaningless.

However, Heruela qualifies that visual impairment does not only mean total loss of vision but comprises a number of cases including loss of peripheral vision or conversely a retention of peripheral vision but without central focus. "A person who does not have 20-20 vision is already considered visually impaired," he said.

Heruela advises teachers to be aware of the extent and capability of each student in the use of their sense of sight. "Nearsighted students, even with corrective lenses, must not be seated at the back but positioned in front for visual clarity during boardwork and teaching aid presentations," he said.

For students with total loss of vision, Heruela said they have effectively compensated with "enhanced sense of hearing and touch." He said teachers, whether with normal vision or especially if they too are visually impaired, must be able to harness the enhanced alternate senses of visually impaired students in order to effectively teach Math as a subject.

Citing examples, Heruela said rectangular coordinate systems or the "x and y axes," an expression that utilizes an illustrative format may be taught using peg boards, similar in design to the code-breaking board game Mastermind. Heruela explains that in the current system of "inclusive education," peg boards are commercially available but teachers on a budget can improvise using cheaper materials such as cork boards and push pins.

"Teachers may begin the instruction by orienting students using the left and right coordinates to indicate negative and positive values," Heruela said. "Thus, on the peg board, -3x and 5y can be identified using their sense of touch to finally plot this graph on the board using a string." He adds, "They do not have to write this down since they have already programmed the expression in their minds."

In the more challenging aspects of binomial and polynomial expressions Heruela said physical substitutes to symbolic representations such as "positive" and "negative" may be obtained from readily available materials such as sandpaper.

He said the capacity of the visually impaired for tactile interpretation will enable them to program in their minds, for instance, the concept of 3x²-5x+7 using the smooth and rough parts of the sandpaper to indicate positive and negative values and, as the sandpaper are cut down to sizes, this will further illustrate the values of x as well as common numbers.

Heruela's audience composed of graduate students who are also Math teachers said they now appreciate learning challenges imposed on visually impaired students. Simulating the situation of loss of vision using blindfolds, the audience said the method is "excellent, even if this requires practice and getting used to." Another said Heruela's demonstration only makes them appreciate the fact that they have full use of their sense of sight.

Still another said this is better than the traditional method of teaching Math because of the ease in which mathematical expressions can be "visualized" using readily available learning aids.

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