How many times have we all heard someone say: Math is cross cultural – language is not so important? I used to believe this as well, that is, until I was well into my first year as an international math teacher. This is a critical misunderstanding in education and as I can attest, one that presently rests on challenges and fortunately, its own rewards.
Principally, we must remember that math is a language. In her powerful article about math as language, MYP and DP math teacher Isabel Dykes, emphasises this point (in her IB paper) while offering a variety of particular challenges faced by the math teacher and then, ideas on how to overcome these.
Here at ISPP, we are working to include vocabulary that goes beyond notation. We include visuals as part of a definition and show examples of where a word might be used. Concerning assessment, key words are placed in bold letters, instructions can be rewritten without lessening the rigor of the problem. In this way, more attention is paid to a student’s actual level of achievement rather than interpretation of word problems or clarifying ideas. This is particularly important in the MYP as writing and communication are such a large part of assessment. Naturally, the EAL learner will struggle with this for a long period of time. Yet, they can benefit from the experience and of course learn math concepts if we scaffold and structure our teaching effectively.
Another aspect we are developing is the use of GDC (Graphic Display Calculators). This allows a student instant visuals and allows them to learn math visually and algebraically without the burden of a verbal explanation.
Math is international only in as far as the underlying concepts are structured. But learning styles, ways of expressing oneself and even the student – teacher dynamic is culturally based. Teacher and student alike can learn from these differences if we allow for multiple ways of viewing math class.