Founder of Synergy Academies, Randy Palisoc presents Math Isn’t Hard, It’s a Language at TEDxManhattanBeach. Here is the full transcript.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Math isn’t hard, it’s a language by Randy Palisoc at TEDxManhattanBeach
26% on the nation’s report card, that’s the percentage of U.S. 12th graders who are proficient in Math. In America, we pride ourselves as being an exceptional country. But does 26% sound exceptional to you? Raise your hand if you think as a country we need to do way better than this. I’m with you.
We all need Math, but why are so many kids confused by it? Is it because only 26% of people are hardwired for Math, while 74% are not? After working with thousands of kids, I can tell you, this isn’t the case at all. Kids don’t understand Math because we’ve been teaching it as a dehumanized subject. But if we make Math human again, it will start to make sense again.
You’re probably wondering: “How was Math ever human in the first place?” So, think about it. Math is a human language, just like English, Spanish or Chinese, because it allows people to communicate with each other. Even in ancient times, people needed the language of Math to conduct trade, to build monuments, and to measure the land for farming. This idea of Math as a language isn’t exactly new. A great philosopher once said: “The laws of nature are written in the language of mathematics.” So you see? Even Galileo agrees with me.
But somewhere along the line, we’ve taken this language of math, which is about the real world around us, and we’ve abstracted it beyond recognition. And that’s why kids are confused. Let me show you what I mean.
Read this 3rd grade California Math Standard and see if it would make sense to an eight year-old. “Understand a fraction 1/b as the quantity formed by 1 part when a whole is partitioned into b equal parts.” Understand the fraction a/b as the quantity formed by a parts of size 1/b. And if you gave this description to an 8 year-old, you’d probably get a reaction — like this.
To a Math expert, this standard makes sense, but to a kid, it’s absolute torture. I chose this example specifically because fractions are foundational to algebra, trigonometry and even calculus. So if kids don’t understand fractions in elementary and middle school, they’ve got a tough road ahead of them in high school.
But is there a way to make fractions simple and easy for kids to understand? Yes. Just remember that Math is a language and use that to your advantage. For example, when I teach 5th graders how to add and subtract fractions, I start with the apples + apples lesson. First I ask, “What’s 1 apple plus 1 apple?” And kids will often say 2, which is partially correct. Have them include the words as well since math is a language. So it’s not just 2, it’s 2 apples.
Next is 3 pencils plus 2 pencils. You all know that pencils + pencils give you pencils, so everyone, how many pencils?
[Audience: 5 pencils.]
5 pencils is right. And the key is you included the words. I tried this lesson with my 5 year-old niece once. After she added pencils and pencils, I asked her, “What’s 4 billion plus 1 billion?”
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.
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.