Saturday, December 7, 2013

Recognition of Math and English Learners

It was such an honor to receive the 2013 Balomenos award as the math educator for New England  at the recent ATMNE conference in Killington. (That's Mary Calder, VCTM president presenting the award). It was a recognition that teaching math to students who are English Learners requires something different, that we need to stop and think a little more carefully about what we are doing. We are now beginning to recognise that there are significant differences between the math students learn in other countries and the math they learn when they arrive in US classrooms.

Differences can exist in so many different ways from the simple algorithmic procedures we use to the complexity or simplicity, as is so often the case, of the counting or number  systems being used. There are also so may other ways that the quantitative aspects of a culture can differ. The strangeness of our measuring system must drive English learners used to the metric system absolutely crazy. Imagine trying to estimate distance in kilometers, or weight in kilos or length in centimeters?. What is your hand span in centimeters? Now measure it to see how close you are. Try the same thing in inches and I bet you are more accurate.

The numbers inherent in unique cultures are also very different. Our lives are defined by numbers and quantitative relationships whether we like it or not. House numbers, SSNs, clothes sizes (we are different sizes in different countries), numbers of States, shires counties or Provinces, stripes or patterns on flags and so on. Every country has a mathematical profile that affects the individuals who live there.

Then there are differences in the math education. The recent PISA test results show several Asian countries at the top with the US and UK fairly well down the charts. I always find such comparisons fairly futile and frustrating since there are so many difference that are not considered. In Shanghai, for example, which came top, there are reports of students working under incredible pressure, studying 15 hours a day and all weekend, There are also reports that teachers get a lot of time during the day for professional development and I am sure there are many other reasons why the differences in scores exist.

So when we are teaching math to English learners we should never dismiss their math difficulties as the result of their limited English. There are so many other reasons why they might be having difficulty. It could also be that they are not having difficulties in math at all; just difficulties communicating what they know but we should never make this assumption. We owe it to our students who are English learner to find out about their math, the math  they know and understand.   

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