Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Math Around the World

Every semester I invite a group of International students studying at St. Mike's to come to my math education class to be interviewed by my students. The purpose of the activity is for my students to realize that math is not the same the world over and that they will be faced with procedural math problems that they might not, at first, understand.

This semester we met with a group of students from China, Japan, Congo, Saudi Arabia and Spain. Using the Multicultural math interview i have developed over the years for my research my students got to know the math of a variety of countries from around the world. There was much laughter from both my students and the International students when they showed each how they did, for example,  subtraction problems or multiplication problems. They were also fascinated by the numbers that have significance in each culture. The international students from China had no idea that 13 was unlucky in the the US and the US students had no idea that 4 was an unlucky number in most Asian languages because the word for four sounds like the word for death.

One of the great bi-products of this experience is that the international students get to meet more SMC students on campus which helps them feel more at home as they go about their studies. I was once an international student, in 1977, and know what it's like to be i a new land with new methods, social expectations and, yes, a different language. It was George Bernard Shaw who said that the UK and US are two countries separated by a common language. You should have seen the look on the students faces when I asked where the rubber was so I could erase the chalk board!

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Math Fact Fuency

Nicky Morgan, the British Minister or Education, recently announced that "all pupils must know, by heart, their times tables up to 12 x 12". Apart from the use of the archaic term "times tables", which one would expect from a Tory, the whole issue of fact fluency, to give it its current term, is a really interesting one.

I have always believed that fact recall, but up to 10 x 10, is an important part of the mathematization process children go through. It's the math equivalent of being able to spell words, but the facts are by no means the "basics" of mathematics. The basics are everything that is included in the field of numeracy; being able to count, to recognize number patterns, to subitize, to see numerical relationships and so on. Remembering the math facts makes math easier and more efficient.

Memory, remembering things, is a crucial part of education, but it is pretty useless when we memorize things with absolutely no understanding of what we are memorizing. Memorize this list of words; Arun, Ouse, Rother, Stour, Medway, Darnet, Mole and Wey. Now use any of these words during a conversation you have with someone  over the next few days.

If we are going to require students to remember their math facts they must understand what they mean. The multiplication facts for example can mean 'groups of' as in 5 groups of 4 people are 20 people. They can mean area as in a carpet 5 yards by 4 yards has an area of 20 square yards. They can also mean the muliplicative comparison as in "I have 20 Hotwheel cars which is 4 times as many as you have if you have 5".  Each of these concepts of multiplication is different but each can be solved with recalling the fact 4 x 5. Or is  it 5 x 4?

Talking of which, when you see the fact written 4 x 5 do you read it as 4 groups of 5, or four 5 times? I asked my grad class this the other day and half saw it one way and half the other way.

For a great read on the topic of fluency read Jo Boalers incredible article Fluency Without Fear which includes a very relevant criticism of EngageNY's approach to fluency.

The names above, by the way, are the Rivers that flow out of Southeast England.