# Math isn’t hard, it’s a language | Randy Palisoc | TEDxManhattanBeach

September 23, 2019

Translator: Radu Chirila

Reviewer: Ariana Bleau Lugo 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. (Laughter) 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. (Laughter) 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. (Laughter) And if you gave this description

to an 8 year-old, you’d probably get a reaction…

like this. (Laughter) To a Math expert,

this standard makes sense, But to a kid, it’s absolute torture. I chose this example

specifically because fractions are fundational to algebra,

trigonometry and even calculus. So if kids don’t understand fractions

in elementary and middle school, they have 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?!” (Laughter) 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 kidergartner

can add fractions, you better believe that

every 5th grader can do it as well. (Applause) 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. (Laughter) 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.” (Laughter) 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 Polisoc, that’s expensive!” (Laughter) 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. Thank you! (Applause)