I am adopted, and I was recently offered an opportunity to get a doctorate degree in Korea through the agency that helped to set up my adoption. The organization is trying to help tie adoptees back into their ancestral roots. I thought, “What an amazing opportunity it would be to go back to my home country and receive a doctorate degree at a fraction of the cost through this program!”
Still, as I looked more deeply into the program, I noticed a paragraph that stated that I would have to take all of my coursework in Korean. One small problem… I don’t speak, read, write, or understand Korean… at all! How would it ever be possible for me to be successful doing doctorate level work in a language that I don’t remotely understand? The short answer is that it wouldn’t be possible at all. Not unless someone took the time to help me understand the language from a base level. Even then it would take years for me to get to the point where I could tackle the actual work beyond the language. The only way it would be possible is if someone took the material and put it into a language that I actually understood. Once I understood the concepts, someone might be successful translating them back into Korean.
The funny thing is that we do this very same thing all of the time in schools, and more specifically in math classes. We ask kids to understand high-level, abstract concepts in a language they don’t understand. People don’t seem to realize that math and math notation are technically a foreign language to kids. ”Shouldn’t the kids know the language by now? They have been doing math their whole school career.” Maybe, but in today’s world, as we push more and more onto our kids, there are so many different math concepts that students do not spend extensive time on any one. Kids may not be getting the necessary time to fully understand a concept before moving on. It is important to note that there is substantial research that supports the fact that it may take 7 to 40 exposures and interactions with a subject before a student grasps a concept.
Regardless of the cause, it is noted that many students struggle with the language of math, and few resources are given to kids to translate what the math books, worksheets and help websites are saying. I believe this language barrier is one of the largest issues preventing kids from learning math.
So why don’t people create math content that the average person can understand? The answer that I have arrived at is because they don’t want to sound dumb to the math community. We almost fell into that trap here at Stinky Kid Math. We kept asking ourselves what the technical language was, what the exact vocabulary wording was, etc. Then we stopped and realized that the truth is that we need to be creating math content at a level so that people who don’t understand math can understand it. We are striving to put our math explanations in language that a struggling student can understand. I’m not saying we should forget centuries of math language development. I’m not saying that we should “dumb down” the math content. I’m also not saying that this thought process applies to all students. What I am saying is that we need to have an option for people that just don’t get it. We need to translate the concepts into language that provides an option for todays’ struggling students. They need to have a chance to understand. After they know how to do the math, it can be tied back to the language of math.
In my humble opinion, I believe that it is in most students’ best interest to be able to do the math before they can read or write a paper using correct math terminology. We also need to remember that not every kid is going to be a rocket scientist that needs to document their work, so other rocket scientists can read it. Many of my former students happen to be rocket scientists and engineers, and dang good ones at that. Still, several other students are very successful as models, musicians, chefs, etc. Although they likely use math on a regular basis, it is not crucial that they can write a technical paper using proper math notation.
So, what do you think? Is it important for ALL students to understand proper math terminology and notation? Should there be an alternative option for lower level students to choose to take math classes that focus more on doing the math than being able to read math books and communicate in math notation? Or are we doing a disservice to kids at Stinky Kid Math by teaching math in language they can understand?
Please comment and let me know your thoughts on this topic.