Friday, July 15, 2005

Good Edweek.

(newly updated)

Well, now that Makigirl's bruhed that dirt off her shoulda. . . sorry, I couldn't resist. . . You know, Makigirl be a pimp too.

Edweek had some really nice articles in it this week. There's this one about the difficulties of teaching math to students whose first language is not English. I can imagine that this is often a tough task. As much as those of us in the science world like to give props to the glories of math, and bask in it's untouchable light, it can't be taught without using words. (Although, I think that would be a very interesting class -- Math for mimes.)

For quite some time, I've been having a debate/discussion with some coleagues (who are predominantly English/Language Arts teachers) about the need to include writing in math classes, and how important it is to be able to communicate in English while you're doing math. I came down on the side of math being something separate, and although it's good to be able to communicate in English what you're doing mathematically, it shouldn't be an absolute requirement of every problem. If you're able to sketch out the basics of a problem using numbers and variables, then there is no need, and you shouldn't be downgraded for not including all the "therefores", "we have now", and small bits of explanation. Those things make your answer more readable, and would be good for partial credit, but are not necessary for me to see that you understand the math. Assignments to learn the communication of mathematics should be in some sense separate from assignments to learn math, in my view, although it would be nice to practice them both all the time, and certainly no one should ever lose points for explaining too much.

Other's hold the opposite view from me. I see their point, but I see no need to hold every third grader up to the standard of Carl Sagan. One can survive, as evidenced by a walk around any physics or astronomy department, in this world only knowing math, but without knowing how to communicate it to a general audience. Developing both skills is important, and should be stressed, but a student shouldn't fail a standardized math class in elementary school simply because they didn't explain a problem they got right.

Story problems are to me a bigger problem, though. I'm a big believer that math and science should be taught as real-world applications, and not as a collection of traditional book problems. Unfortunately, that becomes harder with kids who are not familiar with the language that the problems are being asked in. I remember my own experience in Spain, where it was hard enough to manage in day to day life, let alone in graduate level physics classes. I'm very thankful that I was only doing my research there.

Kids who don't speak English well, are going to need extra help learning math, and I think the article does a good job framing the discussion.

There's also this interesting commentary about the benefits of dual enrolment for high school students in college. I think this is an important issue, and it is presented well by the author. The main problem is that right now dual enrolment is only reserved for either the best of the best students, or those very dissatisfied with their schools. It would seem to me to be good if we used the experience of these students, and start re-evaluating what high school really is. (Yeah, I think I promised a while back to write on that. I'll wait until the research paper I worked on gets released in a few weeks.) Why is there a transition between highschool and college? What would happen if they more smoothly ran into each other. Yeah, we would might have to alter our views on some traditions (like senior prom, or moving in day at college), but there might be alot of benefits to a more integrated system.

Oh, and because I continually point out how the Ed policy world is small, here is another study by my friends and here's one by a rather distant relative. (Who, by the way, you'll meet in a week, Makigirl.)


At 11:33 AM, Blogger maki-girl said...

I completely see your math vs. language point of view. And it was a really interesting article--I had never thought about how hard math class must be if you're not a native speaker. But I have to say that it scares me when I talk to people who are very good at math and pushing around the numbers and symbols, but they have absolutely no idea what they're doing or what it means. I know that I was busy manipulating the Schroedinger Equation for a few semesters before I had any idea what all this psi star psi business really meant. But sometimes I think it has to be that way. In a sense you need to learn both things at the same time (the math language and how to talk about it in English) and naturally you probably won't learn both at the same pace.

The college where I teach offers dual enrollment for the local "cream of the crop" and upward bound for the local "having trouble but have potential." When I was in grade 8 we could "rover" over to the highschool for math classes if our teachers felt we were ready. But I had never thought about really blurring the line. I see the point that people are making, but I also see the beauty and the value of a residential liberal arts program where everyone starts out together as freshman and graduates together four years later. Is this accessable or appropriate for everyone? Nope.

Maybe I just want everything both ways today.

At 2:54 AM, Blogger Tony said...

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