Home » Math Isn’t Hard, It’s a Language by Randy Palisoc (Full Transcript)

Math Isn’t Hard, It’s a Language by Randy Palisoc (Full Transcript)

And my aunt overheard this and she scolded me and said, “Are you crazy? She’s in kindergarten. How’s she supposed to know 4 billion plus 1 billion?”

Undaunted, my niece finishes counting, looks up and says: “5 billion?”

And I said: “That is right, it is 5 billion.”

My aunt just shook her head and laughed because she did not expect that from a 5-year-old. But all you have to do is take a language approach and Math becomes intuitive and easy to understand.

Then I asked her a question that kindergartners are definitely not supposed to know: “What’s one-third plus one-third?” And immediately she answered: “2 thirds”. So if you’re wondering how could she possibly know that when she doesn’t know about numerators and denominators yet? You see, she wasn’t thinking about numerators and denominators. She thought of the problem this way. And she used 1 apple + 1 apple as her analogy to understand 1 third plus 1 third.

So if even a kindergartner can add fractions, you better believe that every 5th grader can do it as well. Just for fun, I asked her a high-school algebra question: What’s 7 x² plus 2 x²? And this little 5-year-old girl correctly answered, 9 x². And she didn’t need any exponent rules to figure that out. So when people say that we are either hardwired for math or not, it’s not true. Math is a human language, so we all have the ability to understand it.

We need to take a language approach to math urgently because too many kids are lost and are anxious about math and it doesn’t have to be that way. I worked with an angry, frustrated high-school student once who couldn’t pass algebra because she only knew 44% of her multiplication facts. I told her, “That’s like trying to read and only knowing 44% of the alphabet. It’s holding you back.” She couldn’t factor or solve equations and she had no confidence in Math. As a result, this teenager had no confidence in herself. I told her, “We have to start with multiplication because once you know all your facts by heart, everything gets easier, and it’ll be like having a fast pass to every ride of Disneyland. What do you think?”

And she said “OK.”

So she systematically learned her times tables in 4 weeks and yes, even multiplication has language embedded in it. You’d be surprised how many kids don’t realize 7 times 3 can be spelled out as “seven times” 3, which just means 3 seven times, just like this. So when kids see it this way, they quickly realize that repeated addition is slow and inconvenient, so they gladly memorize that 3 seven times always gives you 21. So for this teenager who was at risk of dropping out, becoming fluent and confident in multiplication was a game changer. Because for the first time she could focus on problem solving instead of counting on her fingers.

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I knew she had turned the corner when she figured out that a 2-year car lease at $445 a month would cost you $10,680 and she looked at me disapprovingly and said: “Mr. Palisoc, that’s expensive!” At that moment, math was no longer causing problems for her, but she was using math to solve problems as a responsible adult would.

As an educator, it’s my duty to challenge kids to reach higher, so I leave you with this challenge. Our country is stuck at 26% proficiency, and I challenge you to push that number higher. This is important because mathematical thinking not only builds young minds, but our kids need it to imagine and build a future that doesn’t yet exist. Meeting this challenge can be as simple as apples + apples. Insist that we teach Math as a human language and we will get there sooner, rather than later.

Thank you.


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