In helping his fourth grade daughter with her math homework, NYC Educator arrives at a very relevant question about math education and school curriculums in general. Is it important for the student to know the official terminology for a particular concept or is it enough that they understand and be able to apply it?

The topic at hand is the commutative property, which basically says that adding or multiplying two numbers will produce the same results no matter the order of the operation. NYC Educator questions the need for his daughter to know the phrase and be able to pin it on the process.

At fourth grade, I also have my doubts that being able to name the concept will help her understanding of it. But maybe the girl’s teacher is trying to prepare her for high school, the place where we seriously begin to toss around the technical language in math (and most other subjects).

For the students I taught in Algebra and Geometry, one of the most intimidating parts of was always the new language they had to absorb in addition to some admittedly strange, and not always intuitive, concepts. But this points to one of the major problems with the way we teach math.

Most K12 math curriculums and textbooks approach the subject as if every student is going to study math at a professional level and needs to speak the language. The traditional path, starting in the upper grades of elementary school, leads straight to Calculus, assuming every student will need that level of math sophistication.

Certainly a well-educated high school student needs Algebra and Geometry since these subjects offer the foundation they’ll need if they choose to study any technical career after graduation. But it’s far more important that all students leave school with a sense of mathematics and how it applies in the real world.

For example, most math programs don’t offer students a good understanding of probability and statistics, which the average person needs far more than Calculus. However, I’m not talking about the terminology-filled intro many of us suffered through in college.

We need to help students develop the ability to understand the statistical information (and misinformation) that gets tossed at most people every day. As with the other mathematics most people need in the real world, understanding the concepts and applications are the essential parts. The jargon should be woven in only as it becomes relevant.

Now, if I can just get an explanation from the English teachers out there about why I had to do those damn sentence diagrams. I think that’s one explanation for why I’m just now learning to write. :-)

Well, it wasn’t me teaching those diagrams, and I question their necessity as well. If you were studying a foreign language, it might be more useful, but I wouldn’t use them in any language.

My daughter loves math, by the way. I’m trying to figure out where i went wrong.

You didn’t need the diagramming. While it’s interesting to learn how our language, or any, is structured, it’s hard to see a direct link between that work and improvement in writing. By the way, I think you write just fine.

Thanks, Bud. However, it’s only been recently that I’ve learned to write to any degree and actually enjoy the process.

It’s also made me think about the way we teach writing – or math or anything else. For most students we spend too much time on the mechanics of a subject and not enough on the application and process.

It was true when I was a full-time student and it seems to still be true in most schools.