Math Talk by Necessity: a 4-year-old’s story

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My 4-year-old is chatty. And while he will occasionally talk to himself, he’d much rather talk to you. And to him nothing is more frustrating than not being understood.

So, he’s realized that he needs detail. Words like “lots” or “just a little” or “soon” are easily misunderstood. Like when Dad says, “Hang on, dinner will be ready soon.” He’d prefer to have a better understanding of whether you mean 30-seconds soon or 10-minutes soon.

The math teachers among us see this as adding units to your answer. We ask our students, “What was the final speed of the car?” We don’t expect them to say, “fast.” We’d prefer something like “54 m/s”. So would my 4-year-old. “Soon” is too loose a word.

Except, most of the typical units don’t mean anything to him because he is still developing his understanding of what “a mile” is. First, that it’s a unit of distance. Second, how far is one of those. These two things are essential to making meaning out of a statement like, “Well, the store is 6 miles from here.” Without those, statements like “This box is heavy. It’s, like, 6 miles!” are not uncommon around my house right now.

But yesterday, something new happened. Together, he and I made Alton Brown’s Hot Cocoa Mix . To go from ingredients to a drink, you have four units of measure. (cups, teaspoons, tablespoons, and ounces)

So, midway through as we were chatting about this and that… together making the distinction between teaspoons and tablespoons… why two cups of one ingredient looks so much different than two teaspoons of another… stuff like that. Then, we came to the part where we needed to scoop the mix into the mug and I handed him a “scooper” and he says, “I need two… two… of THESE, but I don’t know what it’s NAME is? Dad… what’s this one’s name?”

Did you catch that? There was a step forward in that.

He knew the number wasn’t enough. “Put two in there” is really easily misunderstood. That would be a problem. Two of what?

He also knew that it totally mattered what “name” he gave the scooper. If he called it “a cup”, he risked calling it the wrong thing. Two cups of mix makes a totally different amount of hot cocoa that two tablespoons. And both could be called “a scoop”. (Two scoops from the coffee can is different that the two scoops of raisins on the cereal box.)

Finally, he figured out that this thing had a name. That I knew it. That he needed to know it and that it wouldn’t work to make it up. If he is going to communicate this amount to others, he needed to know the ACTUAL name of this scooper. Not his preferred name.

There you have it. Math talk by necessity. Lends credence to the notion that if you put students in rich enough environments, you won’t have to mandate good math talk. They simply won’t be able to communicate effectively without it.

Now, we just have to deal with the fact that when Chef Alton says “two tablespoons”, Dad tries to measure accurately while the 4-year-old would prefer that mean “the maximum possible amount of hot cocoa mix that the tablespoon will transfer to the mug.”

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