Thursday, April 26, 2012

Zero, Nought, or Nothing

Noughts and crosses is a popular game usually played with a pencil and paper especially during a long and boring lecture by two overly competitive students. I still call it this even though it is inexplicably called tic tac toe in the US (If you Google the origin of the name you'll find it has to do with the sound Roman pencil's made when they hot the ground - still inexplicable).

The word 'nought' is the British equivalent of zero and has given rise to some interesting phenomena such as the 'early noughties', the first ten years of the current millenium as in '04 and '08. Shakespeare loved 'nought', of course, as in " That it yields nought but shame and bitterness" from Henry V.

Today,  the concept of zero is something we must focus on developong with young children as they learn to count and understand the intricacies of our base ten system. The idea of the concept of zero was first introduced as an "empty set" through the disastrous New Math of the 1960s. Math educators are still frequently erroneously tarred with the same brush when any mathematical ideas are suggested that differ from traditional mathematics; but that's another story.    

When we teach children how to number name from 0 - 100 we must start with zero so that they recognize it as a number with a place on the number line. Later when children start to develop their sense of cardinality, the ability to recognize and name a quantity, they can start with 0 before they have any objects to count. The importance of developing this idea only really becomes apparent when they encounter the base ten system.

Traditionally, children have been taught to think of 0 as a "place hloder'. The problem with this idea is that it doesn't help in the development of the child's conceptual understanding of place value. For example, in the number 306, the zero stands for no tens. The idea of the "place holder" simply means that it keeps the 3 and 6 apart which does nothing to develop an understanding of what each digit in a number means. It's another  example of the useless metaphors that are sprinkled throughout traditional math.  

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