For the next couple of days I get to spend time at Discovery Ed with a bunch of bright folks who are not "educational" experts, or "cognitive science" experts, or "business" experts--they are here because they're interested in the world around them, pay attention, and take advantage of our brain's plasticity. I hope to take pick some brains.
The brain is a funny animal. What we know influences what we do; what we do influences what we know. That was true back in the day, and it's true now, and it will remain true long after the current crop of educational experts fade from the scene.
I have always had an irrational love of numbers, but not in a Sesame Street fetishistic way, where performance matters more than purpose. Numbers help sort patterns, and help us see the world. Humans love patterns, for whatever reasons, and numbers intensify what we can see. (Some people smoke pot to intensify their experiences, I play with numbers.)
In the past few years, I have seen more and more kids who are functionally innumerate. Some of these students do fine in algebra yet struggle with science. Numbers, already a level of abstraction, become symbols without meaning, punched into machines programmed by others, to give results that will lead to faint promises of success. (Get the correct answer, your grade goes up, and eventually you get to heaven. Or something like that. I lost track of the story decades ago.)
Somewhere along the way, numbers lost their connection to the patterns they represent. We no longer need them. No need to make change. No need to figure out how long it will take to walk to the diner to meet up with others. No need to build tree forts. None of this is news to teachers.
What may be news, though, is my recent (and anecdotal) recognition that one reason kids struggle with numbers is because they cannot "feel" them anymore. Show a reasonably bright adult a few objects clumped together on a desk, ask her how many are there, and she will immediately know it is "five" or "seven" or whatever the number happens to be. We chunk numbers, nothing a few other mammals can't do, and we do it well.
|Clever Hans, the counting horse.|
Or at least we used to. I am seeing more and more kids needing to count out what should be automatic. I see students flying through algebra without a decent grasp of arithmetic.
Are others seeing this to?
Does it matter?
Can we fix it?
I do confess I need to count my quahogs individually once I get past a dozen or so....