Sunday, May 23, 2010

Teaching of mathematical literacy

I have been teaching a low literacy class this year and it has taught me the perils of relying on the immersion technique to teach mathematical literacy. After seeing the positive effects of direct instruction of low literacy students, I see immersion as a lazy teaching technique for low ability students - immersion is slow, ineffective and generally detrimental to these students, especially in a large heterogeneous class.

Let me explain. When I teach area, I generally teach students to write a story that I can read. They draw a diagram, label the sides, write a general equation, substitute the values, evaluate the solution and check their answer. Once this technique has been learned I can then easily teach other concepts such as Pythagoras' theorem, trigonometric ratios, surface area and the like.

The explicit teaching of mathematical literacy (requiring specific layout and explicitly explaining the meaning and need for each component of the layout) is the key component in this exercise. By year ten, most can answer the area of a rectangle and write the answer, but cannot abstract the method to a circle. I attribute this to a lack of mathematical literacy and a failure to appreciate the true need for mathematical literacy.

Although modelling has a place in teaching mathematics (a key tool in immersion), we must be mindful that we need to teach literacy explicitly and not assume students will just pick up major concepts by observing a question being completed. The difference between a student answering a question correctly (after being given an example on the board) and being able to identify how to answer a question correctly from a range of tools (without prompting) is considerable.

Mathematics has grammar just like English. If students understand the grammar of mathematics, the meta-language of mathematics and the algebraic/arithmetic/visual representations/tools of mathematics, then their ability to solve problems increases exponentially.

And as mathematics teachers we can appreciate the benefits of exponential growth.

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