From Borat to The Lone Ranger

The latest results from international testing in mathematics have been released and results show the United States finished behind Kazakhstan. Now I don’t know much about Kazakhstan, except this is the country Borat hails from. I’m sure Kazakhstan is a beautiful country, but it doesn’t jump out with me as a math powerhouse. What does jump out at me is that children in the United States continue to lag in their math knowledge when compared at the international level.

I know without a doubt, most people enter the teaching profession because they care deeply about our young people and place great value on education. Most teachers spend hours outside of the regular work day grading, planning lessons, and dreaming up ways to engage, motivate, and teach their students every day. Yet, with teachers working so hard, there must be some other reason for the gap in mathematical understanding. Teachers blame students, parents, or administrators. Parents and students blame teachers. Administrators blame social media. Etcetera, etcetera. Amidst all the chatter, one question continues to rise: When our students don’t achieve, what is the reason? Perhaps the question we should be asking is, “What can each of us do?” This question gets both parents and educators centered on doing everything possible to improve learning.

Developing the imagination of a child is vital to their ability to learn. Humans can examine concepts they habitually employ in thinking, not by direct introspection, but by imagining a variety of related situations and asking themselves, “What would happen if…?” In the 1930’s kids would gather around with nothing more than the radio and their imagination, and The Lone Ranger would come to life. With CGI in video and the proliferation of devices for kids to watch these on, we rob them of opportunities to use their imagination. We need to provide multiple and rich alternatives for young children to imagine everyday. Imagination is too often seen as something peripheral to the core of education, something taken care of by allowing students time to ‘express themselves’ in the arts, while the proper work of educating goes on in the sciences and math. But imagination is the center of education; it is crucial to all subjects including mathematics.

Number is an abstract concept and the ability to manipulate number requires an ability to imagine number. In math we develop this ability by reducing the perceptual material that is available to the child in their visual field, which encourages them to search for alternative sensory material and allows for them to use their imagination. For young children working with mathematical ideas, being able to imagine is a critical link between using manipulatives and working with only numerals. So how do parents and teachers encourage this? How do we know they have imagined enough? What can each of us do? All of these questions are answered by research that we at the AIMS Center are coming to understand and that will be part of upcoming blogs.

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