Why Mathematics is a Foreign Language in America and What to Do about It.

Today, when (and if) the sun comes out, take a child outside and measure the shadow of something, and say, “Today, June 21st, is the longest day of the year. Let’s see how long the shadow is. Let’s pick something and mark the end of the shadow so that we can watch the shadow get longer as the summer goes on.”

All sorts of questions could come up depending upon the age of the child and the interests of the participants, for example:

What could we use to measure?

Could we use one of Daddy’s shoes? My shoe, Baby’s foot,

How could we use a tape measure?

What is the relationship of Daddy’s shoes to my shoes?

What is the ratio?

Do we need to pick a fixed time?”

…and so on and so on.

It is common for parents to ritualize story time every day. This is a good thing. To read to your children before he or she goes to bed is the most important thing parents can do to ensure that their children will grow up to be readers. It not only models something that you value, it builds your relationship, and gives you a time to be with your child in loving, fun, calm, quiet, spiritually enriching ways. Stories are the staff of mental life and relationships.

What if we had a curiosity ritual? This week we play around with sinking and floating; next week we notice the flight of balloons, or the creation of bubbles. What if parents were ritualistic about doing a cooking project with their kids every weekend?

Why do Americans do so badly in mathematics? Because mathematics is a foreign language in America. The vast majority of children grow up in a number-poor environment. We’ve forgotten that the language of mathematics is founded in curiosity.  We too often think of mathematics as rules rather than as questions.  This is like thinking of stories as grammar.  Being curious together can be a really special part of the relationship in families.

To learn any language it is best if the child swims in the milieu of the language. The reason bedtime reading is so important is not that it is a time to TEACH reading, but that it makes reading a part of a child’s reality—the reality which their brains are constituted by nature to master. If we want our children to master mathematics, we need to make sure that the phenomena of the physical world (Science), tools (Technology), how they work (Engineering), and measurement (Mathematics) are a conscious part of their lives, not just something they take for granted and hope others (certain rare mathematical geniuses) will miraculously take care of.

If shadow measuring became a weekly ritual—something you did every Sunday at noon for no good reason except to give a nod to the god of curiosity—many more questions would come up, be pondered and answered as the children got older. The questions would get more sophisticated as time went by:

As the days get shorter, what do you predict will happen to the shadows?


Does the length of the shadow increase by the same amount every day? (a core concept in calculus)

Is the relationship between the length of the days and the length of the shadow an inverse relationship or a direct relationship?

Why do the shadows get longer, when the days get shorter?

Why does it look like the sun goes around the earth, when actually the earth goes around the sun?

What is the height of the flagpole? How could we find out without climbing it?

“Daddy, who was Pythagoras?”

Kids ask these kinds of questions naturally (“Where do babies come from?”) all the time. All day long as they explore their world, they notice phenomena and try to make sense out of them. Most of the time, they ask and answer such questions in the privacy of their own minds. Every once in a while we get a glimpse of that mind, when they ask an adult. When they make what sounds like a statement of fact, the adult should take it as a question.

From birth, children are natural scientists. From Birth! (Sorry for shouting.) Children want to understand the real world and organize it so that they can wrap their brains around it—almost literally.  Numbers, mathematical disciplines, scientific questions, tools and the way they work are the very stuff of the lives of children and adults alike. Mathematics is the language of the physical world, the more it is part of normal, everyday conversation, the better their minds will be prepared to understand the numbers that school throws at them.

Here’s a short list of idea starters for things the family could keep their eye on, measure variables which change over time or change as the result of other variable that can be measured.
Angle of Sun to planet.
The effect of rainfall on level of local bodies of water.
Effect of snowfall to flow of water in Spring.
Plant growth.
Timing of flowers in the Spring – which and when.
A/C use as it relates to electric use and resulting bill.

Keep going with your own.

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15 thoughts on “Why Mathematics is a Foreign Language in America and What to Do about It.

  1. LOVE this!
    As landscape architects, we design outdoor classrooms for public schools from pre-k to grade 12 and even university level. We love to have berms in the landscape to use for basic mechanics, measuring heights of the landforms, using boards between them and to the ground to see the difference in heights and of course measuring everything. I love the measuring of the shadows because it is not dependent on anything except one fixed object.
    We are looking to do a simple lesson having the kids measure their feet, fingers, hands, arms so they have a reference and then go out to the “wild” to scavenger hunt for 4″ leaves, 6″ rocks, 2″ flowers, 1/4″ insects….

  2. Excellent. Some of the most exciting ideas for schools, and learning, and curriculum and kids are coming out of the field of Archtecture. Design is finally coming to the fore as an essential discipline–and design is one of the many things kids naturally gravitate to. Putting “art” in some ancillary position with respect to “academics” is one of the many manifestations of the antiquated mindset that is driving what goes on in school. How many principals would value what you as essential learning rather than categorize it as mere play?

  3. I’m not sure I’d want my children to ask these questions, I have no idea how to find the answer for them.

  4. Not to worry. Pondering an interesting question is usually better for brain development than being given the answer. When the answer comes, thinking stops.
    You just pointed to myth number 11 (http://bit.ly/jjLkL2): 11) academic achievement is about maximizing right answers and minimizing wrong answers.
    To maximize academic achievement one wants a heavy dose of experience with challenging questions–and pondering as well as researching.

  5. Rick, thank you, I absolutely love this…especially the shouting! Children ARE natural scientists, naturally curious and incredibly aware. I see this in the infants and toddlers in my classes all the time. They notice and take interest in details of the world that we adults take for granted. And that should spell relief for parents and educators, because all we are then required to do is provide an enriching environment, be responsive and reacquaint ourselves with our own innate curiosity…which can be very fun.

  6. I’m starting my own school for exactly this reason. Our schools do children a terrible disservice by not seizing upon their natural scientific curiosity from their earliest years. And when children finally do get “science,” it’s dreaded as a boring textbook subject. My curriculum integrates science and the arts. Children find their answers by trial and error and by getting their hands dirty. Thanks for a great post.

  7. Jennifer. This is exciting. We need to keep reminding teachers (who think science is their weak suit that when a kindergartner walks into class on the first day, he has already been a scientist for 43,800 hours.) all they have to do is keep them at it and give them a few tools to do it even better.

  8. Esta es una buena idea. Me pareció muy interesante el tema. Rendimiento académico es una parte necesariamente en la construcción de futuro de los niños. Los maestros deben dar posibilidades de actividades extracurriculares de los niños.

  9. Pingback: Taking Stock

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