Math, Language, and the Common Core

These three things are inextricably tied together in today’s math classes (at least in the states that adopted common core). I’m going to start out this post talking about math education in the US, followed by an explanation of how language effects math, and then how this all connects to the Common Core State Standards. In our class, we have been discussing how the US ranks in math test scores over all. Many media sites say that we rank abysmally low and that we need to drastically improve our rankings. I, along with some classmates, think that this comparison of test scores across the world is pretty silly. We’ve already established that test scores aren’t a great way of evaluating understanding. There’s also issues with how countries are reporting test scores (some report every score while others only report some). However, discounting all this, the US does rank pretty low considering that we are a global power. In fact, according to the 2012 report from PISA, the US is below average. That’s actually the first fact on the report for the US, that we are below average in math and rank at #27.

So, according to this ranking, we’re bad at math. And, at the top of the list is Shanghai-China. And here is where this gets interesting. While there are many reasons why the US ranks so low and China ranks so high, I believe that language may be part of that. I’m going to go ahead and put a disclaimer that I don’t think language is the sole reason (or even a large contributor) but I do think it may at least factor in. The reason language may factor in is because of the way we count. In English, we count in a way that is structured differently than the way you would count in Chinese. In Chinese, the number 11 is actually called something more like ‘ten-one’ instead of some arbitrary number called ‘eleven’. By having your counting system go from one to ten-one to twenty-one instead of one to eleven to twenty-one, it’s easier to understand and manipulate numbers at an earlier age. In addition, the names we give to our numbers are often pretty long compared to Chinese numbers. This is explained in Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers” where he explains

Take a look at the following list of numbers: 4, 8, 5, 3, 9, 7, 6. Read them out loud. Now look away and spend 20 seconds memorizing that sequence before saying them out loud again. If you speak English, you have about a 50 per cent chance of remembering that sequence perfectly. If you’re Chinese, though, you’re almost certain to get it right every time. Why is that? Because as human beings we store digits in a memory loop that runs for about two seconds. We most easily memorize whatever we can say or read within that two-second span. And Chinese speakers get that list of numbers – 4, 8, 5, 3, 9, 7, 6 – right almost every time because, unlike English, their language allows them to fit all those seven numbers into two seconds.

Essentially, the way numbers are said and structured in Chinese allow people to understand them faster and then make it easier to manipulated them and to understand how they are manipulating them.

And we finally come to the Common Core. What the Common Core standards for math are trying to do is to create an understanding of how math actually works that hasn’t been traditionally taught. This Vox video does an excellent job as to explaining what CCSS of math are aiming to do. So, because most adults don’t understand how to do this (because it wasn’t taught), they can’t help their kids with their homework. Now, the CCSS doesn’t do the best job because it forces children to only use their methods.

The Chinese language’s structure of numbers allows for students to be able to have a strong grasp of number grasp without much instruction while in English, students will need more help. The Common Core is trying to do this by using visuals to show kids what they are doing to the numbers.



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