Sunday, August 15, 2010

= ≠ =

Much ink is spilled wondering why American students seem to grasp mathematics so poorly, at least when compared to students in China or Korea. Researchers at Texas A&M offer an interesting hypothesis:

They don't know what the "equals" sign means.

Seriously. Not a joke. American students are more likely than students in the control groups to solve 4+3+2=( )+2 with a 9 rather than a 7. That is, they misunderstand the entire question, and get the wrong answer.

The Science Daily story gives more detail, but we are fascinated by the possible ramifications of a nation in which many people cannot correctly interpret a single, unambiguous symbol. What other symbols do people not understand? A stop sign? A yellow light? And if they can't interpret these, what about more densely encoded but only marginally more ambiguous forms of symbolic speech -- a politician's obfuscation, for example? Or the teachings of a church?


PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

I don't know about the equal sign significance in learning math, but I think that there are cultural things that prevent American kids from "being good at math." For one thing, women in this country seem to think that women, in general, won't be good at math. Yes, I know that some are (my mom was and she taught me to be good at math,) but it is a general stereotype. Couple that with most of the grade school teachers being women and most of those not taking any higher math classes, or perhaps not taking any math after about 11th grade. And in high school, some girls want to act stupid in math and science to impress boys. (???) Education classes are often more about methods and child psych than about how to teach specific subjects. [I'll have to ask my son about this, as he is studying to be a 5th grade teacher.]

So when a school child needs help with his/her math, he might be discouraged from asking his mother for help, and the stereotype is perpetuated.

High school math teachers are often people who did really well in math, almost intuitively, so they might not understand the step by step approach needed by those students who struggle with the concepts.

We had a 15 year old foreign exchange student from Korea who was good at math. I don't know how he compared to students in his country, but here, he was at least a year beyond the standard curriculum in our school. He was in math class with our daughter and sometimes he had to do the problems on the board for the class and for the teacher. !!! He said that in Korea, first grade students are taught how to divide. I don't think our kids get that until about 3rd grade. He also said that they were not allowed to use calculators until they were well into high school.

My feeling is that in this country, there is a general cultural assumption that math is hard and that a person has to be really smart to get it. There is not the assumption that if one works really hard at practicing math problems, that it can be conquered. I've read that in Japan, the mothers expect the kids to drill and practice math until they get it, rather than assuming that one has to be smart to begin with to understand math.

In addition, I've read about a few people who go around the country trying to make a point of showing people that math can be fun not tedious.

I've concluded that math isn't taught effectively in this country because of these cultural biases.

It will be interesting to see how my son does with teaching math. He was definitely "math challenged" until he got to a junior college where he was taking the same material that he had twice in high school, but he finally had a great teacher and was also assigned to help other students. Suddenly, he looked at math in a different light.

PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

Hmmm, it said my comment didn't go through. Now what?

Anonymous said...


Diane said...

hmm, I see the problem with the particular problem as not the "=" sign, but not reading the entire problem, stopping before getting to the end.

That may be an attention span problem, not a math problem.

Pastor Joelle said...

I just want to say that I, like Barbie, hate math.