Doing math vs. feeling math

At a school open house recently, I struck up a conversation with a man after he asked the exact question I was about to ask: Why do you use Everyday Math instead of Singapore Math?

The man told me his daughter — who learned math using Montessori math materials: beads and other tangible, concrete objects — understands math at more of a gut, intuitive level than he does.

I thought of that concrete/symbolic divide when I read today that Chinese people tend to use a different brain circuit to process basic math:

a 2006 study found that native Chinese speakers use a different region of the brain to do simple arithmetic (3 + 4) or decide which number is larger than native English speakers do, even though both use Arabic numerals. The Chinese use the circuits that process visual and spatial information and plan movements (the latter may be related to the use of the abacus). But English speakers use language circuits. It is as if the West conceives numbers as just words, but the East imbues them with symbolic, spatial freight. (Insert cliché about Asian math geniuses.) “One would think that neural processes involving basic mathematical computations are universal,” says Ambady, but they “seem to be culture-specific.”

I long assumed we all process information and solve problems in similar ways. But brain research has discovered that we may each use very different brain circuits to turn the same input (say, 2+2) into the same output (4). That begs the very interesting question of whether certain circuits (solution processing paths) are better than others. Students may well be able to solve simple math problems equally well using either concrete or symbolic brain processes, but one approach or the other presumably prepares students better for doing advanced math. My intuition suggests symbolic processing is more easily extended to solving more complex math problems. But Chinese students statistically are doing much better at math than their American peers. Perhaps students must first acquire a strong, concrete grasp of math before they can truly grasp more complex, abstract concepts? A further hunch: Perhaps American students learn to solve algebra problems mechanically without really grasping — at a gut level — what the algebra equations represent?

It’s fascinating to discover that different cultures encourage the use of different brain regions to solve identical problems. Given that, educational researchers should determine which approach serves students best in the long run, rather than which approach most easily equips them to pass their next NCLB test.

Posted by James on Monday, February 22, 2010