In school, we depend on language to convey ideas. The teacher walks up to the board, writes words, uses words to ask and answer questions; the students receive books with words and are assessed with tests using—you got it—words. Even when it comes to assessing math literacy, we depend on words. This dependence on language is precisely what TED Talks speaker Matthew Peterson—Chief Technical Officer and Senior Scientist at the MIND Research Institute—addresses in his eight-minute lecture, Teaching Without Words. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?
Words, words, words…do we need them to teach math literacy?
Interrogating our dependence on language starts to make sense, however, when we consider states like California where 25 percent of students are English language learners, 15 percent have language learning difficulties and 20 percent fail language comprehension tests. Is Peterson suggesting that reading proficiency is not a priority? Not at all. He is simply suggesting that it may be necessary to find new ways to teach students for whom language is still a barrier. He’s also suggesting that we may not need language to teach math literacy.
In addition to watching his brief lecture (which you’ll find below), we recommend stopping by MIND Research Institute’s website to learn more about Peterson’s spatial-temporal approach to teaching K-5 mathematics. The software he and his team have designed to teach math literacy does not use language, numbers or symbols; instead, it teaches students to visualize and focus on interactive problem solving.