Learning math, and remembering it, is not the easiest thing in the world. It can be difficult for young children to learn math and difficult for adults to remember how to perform certain math functions. In American education, the emphasis on math is strong and the comparison to higher performing nations in math education is often used to cause alarm. It can also be used to help understand how math can be taught, and learned, differently, and potentially in a more long-lasting manner.
The first complexity that children are faced with, and where the lag in international performance standards in math learning also begins, is with the number system. In the English language, the words for eleven through twenty don’t have a logical correspondence to what they are. In Chinese, the words for 11-20, 21-30 are based on the logic of the number and don’t require the additional learning of the representational words. This is why math literacy is important; understanding the language is the first way to understand numbers. In foreign countries, by kindergarten or first grade, children know their numbers up to at least 40, with a logical fluency. In America, the expectation based on nationwide curricular standards is usually that by K-1st, students know up to 20 or 30. It’s a lower standard because of the learning curve.
Another difficulty in learning, and remembering math, occurs where symbolic representation is concerned. A lot of people have a hard time with fractions. ½ + ¼ = a thought provoking symbolic representation. One logic would be to add across the top and bottom and come up with 1/6 as an answer. But, what needs to occur is a manipulation of the fractions so that both denominators are the same so that the correct of ¾ can be arrived at. All the practice and memorization in the 3rd grade on this point will only be as effective as the real understanding that each learner is able to come to. If a child learning fractions, truly understands the concept of manipulation required when dealing with that type of number, they will always know how to work with fractions. In other words, memorization is not enough, the curriculum calls for kids to be able to communicate their math knowledge, and to be able to do that means really understanding the concept.
For parents, to help their children master math concepts, simple discussions that relate the concepts into a more feeling, meaningful thing is critical. A lesson about fractions over pizza can really drive home the physical ability to understand fractions. Even with older students, learning advanced concepts like linear representations or trigonometry or calculus, asking them to explain to you how some aspect of how math works will move their thought into a place where they have to understand in order to explain. Math does connect to the real world; looking for those connections and pointing them out goes a long way for a child learning math.
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