Monday, January 28, 2013

Math or Language? Which is more important?

Is this a good picture?  How do we know? (thanks tim o)
The Question:
During and assembly the other day, the students and I were discussing the great progress so far this year at WMS.  We mentioned our attendance was tops in the district last month, our grades are trending upwards, behavior is better and even our SRI/SMI scores are trending higher as well.  All this data seems to confirm we are #onthemap.  A question came up regarding math and English.  The question was asked regarding the merit of each, “What is more important, math or language?  The answer was a loud din.  It was clear that there was not easy answer.  This post will investigate this very question, examining the merits of mathematics, then we will investigate literacy.
 Mathematics is the language of the sciences; technology, research, time, construction, data, speed, weather, banking, business and… the list goes on.  Anything we quantify, count or assign a value needs a pre-agreed upon system of accountability.  We need numbers to tally, compare and determine value relative to other things of perceived value.   Thus we use money as the concept or idea and worth nothing but the stock it is printed on.  Society has to agree and assign the idea of exchange, hence banking evolves from one party wanting something another already has, then needing a method to barter till acquired, even though taxed.  A clear understanding of number sense, both in the concrete and abstract is necessary for success in modern society.  Concrete examples abound; arithmetic, money and banking.  However, abstract concepts like algebra begin to assign patterns and predictability, both vital skills for planning and forward thinking.
Imagine a news cast with a weather report void of numbers or predictions, or a sports announcer not sharing any scores or statistics.  Statistics permeate every aspect of our lives regardless or our acknowledgements.  Failing to recognize numerical influence in our world does not lessen the need to apply a scale or relativity to a condition.  For instance, it may be cold outside but should we worry about how cold?  Probably, especially if we don’t want our plants to wither. If it falls below 32°, we know things will freeze.  Numbers are vital to predict and plan accordingly.  To diminish their use, service or place in our world limits or governs the depth of understanding.  Those individuals striving to maximize their impact and influence on their world would be hard pressed to carry a campaign without some data or facts.  Any attempt to ponder a world without numbers forces us to recreate things like our stock market, retirement system and even our debit or credit cards.
Numbers help us describe the world we live in with accuracy and fidelity.  We think sizes, shapes and colors.  We consider the history of numbers and pay respect to folks like the Incas or Mayans that had a limited understanding of zero yet still thrived for ages.  A brief internet search for the history of zero reveals a rocky start or birth as it evolved.
Daily, regularly, daresay continuously, numbers matter and are in every portion of our life.  There seems no way we could exist independent of numbers.  Our awareness of their impact adds to our understanding of the world around us.
On the other hand…
Could the prior four paragraphs be written by substituting out the reference for numeracy and inserting a linguistic connotation?  Couldn’t the same things be said about words, like we just said about numbers?  With our starting point it seems there is at least equal importance or breadth pertaining to language, although numbers are in quantitative features of everything.  The qualitative aspect addresses everything also, and often more thoroughly.   Numbers describe the quantity but words describe the quality.
Consider abstract concepts like emotions, love or wind.  We could assign a rate or direction to describe the wind but descriptions like gusts, or breezes would not completely cover all the necessary details for a sailor.  What number could describe an emotion, like love, anger or stress?  A foundational sequential language is necessary to articulate abstract concepts.  Child development even suggests our brain maturity is aided by sufficient words being addressed to children.  The number is nearly 30,000.  From birth to age three, children need to hear 30,000 words a day.  Third grade success stems from this exposure, like a running commentary from the care-giver to the child.  During this stage, we hear about a baby’s first word!  We learn words first and counting comes later.
None the less, these are all examples predominantly anecdotal evidence.  None of this proves conclusively that math is more important than language.  For that, we would need to assign parameters of descriptors to determine the value of numbers and the value of language.
Even though this article was written in a verbal or linguistic prose, we did use numbers, in the binary code of zeros and ones that describes everything digitally!
Maybe there is no clear answer?  Maybe they are both interdependent and can’t be scored or rated?  Maybe together, math and language represent clear and effective communication?

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