Lancer Letter – Math Without Words

Submitted by Richard Scaletta, GM School District

Picture an empty cup. Now picture that cup two-thirds full of milk. Picture another cup that is half full of milk. Pour the first cup into the second and what do you get? Record your answer.
Now, solve for x: ? + ½ = x. Record your answer.

In my first example, you visualized a task that requires you to have a conceptual understanding of fractions. (If your answer was,“spilled milk,” don’t cry, you are correct.) In the second example, you had to have both a conceptual and symbolic understanding of fractions.

jijiFor young children, gaining conceptual understanding for math is critical. Some children can eventually just manipulate the numbers and get right answers with no understanding behind it; but, eventually, the lack of conceptual understanding will come back to haunt them. Enter ST Math.

This year in grades K-6, we have rolled out a highly advanced software program by the Mind Research Institute called Spatial Temporal Math, or ST Math. “Born out of neuroscience research at the University of California, Irvine, MIND’s unique approach accesses the brain’s innate “spatial-temporal” reasoning ability. This ability, which lies at the core of innovative thinking and sophisticated problem-solving, allows the brain to hold visual, mental representations in short-term memory and to evolve them in both space and time, thinking multiple steps ahead.”

What is very fascinating about this program is that is uses “language-independent, animated representations of math concepts.” A child gets a screen with no words and no instructions. Adults, of course, would say, “What do I do?” Children just begin to play. They only thing they need to know is that they are supposed to get the penguin, JiJi, to move across the screen.

Think about how kids approach video games. There are no instructions, no manual. They just start to play and figure it out as they go. ST Math utilizes that same approach by creating hundreds of games that address all the math concepts we need children to learn. Teachers assign the games based on what they are presently teaching in the class. Children are moved through the program at their own pace and don’t have to wait for all their classmates to arrive at the same level of understanding. With internet access, children can continue to use ST Math at home.

Last year, fourth grade teachers Scott Hutchison and Jim Pete, piloted this software. They tried having students do ST Math before the related lesson. They also tried having them do the ST Math following the lesson as reinforcement. They found that when students learned the concept from ST Math before the lesson, it cut their lesson time in half! Throughout the country, where ST Math has been used, standardized test scores in math have doubled or tripled. They have also found that some autistic students who don’t speak, can do high levels of math with JiJi. More importantly, for our children at GM, their ability to think and conceptualize will be greatly enhanced.

The creator of ST Math, Matthew Peterson, did not learn to read until fifth grade. He later discovered that people like Albert Einstein and himself, could think at very high levels about math and science without words. For him and Einstein (and statistically many others), thinking with words is a hindrance.

As I’ve outlined, ST Math teaches math concepts without words, but only at first. Once the child has mastered the concept visually, numbers and symbols are added to the screen. Eventually words are added. This approach, Peterson asserts, reaches a far greater number of students than those who prefer “words first,” a group he estimates to be only 15% of the population. He reasons that 25% of students are English Language learners, 15% have language deficiencies such as dyslexia, and another 20% fail language comprehension tests. With 30% of students saying they prefer to learn visually, he feels ST Math reaches the majority of children.

While our experience with ST Math is relatively limited at this point, I can say that I am hearing many reports that the students love it and want to play with “JiJi” as often as possible.

If you have a tablet device, you can experience the ST Math process by downloading two free apps: KickBox and Big Seed. You can learn more about this fascinating program at www.mindresearch.org.

Oh, and yes. If you have a child or grandchild who wants to keep playing” JiJi, don’t stop them. They are actually mastering math concepts but think they are playing a game. Don’t tell — and don’t spill your milk again.

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The Lancer Letter is a weekly editorial by Richard Scaletta, Superintendent of Schools, General McLane School District. Opinions expressed are Mr. Scaletta’s views on the issues and subjects of discussion.

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