Vicinity Magazine

Page 25

COUNTING PAST TEN: Building America’s Strength in Numbers By Drew Cayman


umbers might seem as basic as our ten fingers, but for the Amazonian Pirahã people, whose language lacks numbers, trading with surrounding tribes can be confusing. After eight months of classes, not one of the adult Pirahã could count to ten. This research, published in Science and Cognition, sparked controversy among linguists. But it drives home a deeper point for the rest of us: number sense is not automatic; rather it is best acquired, like any language, in childhood. The U.S. is not at the forefront of math education, and our levels of numeracy (numeric literacy) are lagging. We might have the confidence to pick up the check at a restaurant, but too many of us, while reaching for our wallets, quietly pull out our cell phone’s tip calculator or conjure a rote percentage formula.

any child’s mind. Here, in the US, numbers are abstractions to be memorized—cells in the multiplication table—and, when middle schoolers reach algebra, the digits are still as far off as the letters that now represent them. New Jersey regularly tops our nation’s annual rankings of spending per pupil on education, and yet when the tri-state area recently tried to adopt a standardized Algebra I test for high school students, the grades were so resoundingly low that the experiment was abandoned. If math were presented from the start as an intriguing puzzle, not a necessary evil, students might have a better chance. Competition is a cultural value, one we celebrate in spades. From the first grade spelling bee to the middle school science

If math were presented from the start as an intriguing puzzle, not a necessary evil, students might have a better chance. With literacy, the key is to start early. Consistent practice, aided by the multiple voices of family and friends, turns letters— their shapes and sounds—into the building blocks of words. Numeracy is no different. Newly imported “Singapore Math” presents the number seven as days of the week, then expands upon its pattern and shape. Thus exposed, “7” is not just a symbol, but also a set of deeper connections to be gardened in

fair to mock trials, elementary children have no shortage of fun, competitive ways to practice and flaunt their academic talents. For the most part, however, math is conspicuously missing from the list until too late in high school and college. To provide earlier encouragement, the math tutoring center, Mathnasium, with convenient locations across New Jersey, steps up to the plate by hosting the National TriMathlon—an

annual mathematics competition for second through fifth graders, being held this year on the weekend of October 17 and 18. Open to all 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders, the 2015 TriMathlon offers three challenges: Magic Squares (creative problem solving), the Counting Game (counting from any number to any number, by any number), and Mental Math Workout (solving problems without pencil and paper). In addition to impressive prizes for the winners and cash contributions to local schools based upon student participation at each center, the TriMathlon offers a supportive venue for children to test their skills, free of charge. Interested students may register at, with their parents’ consent. In a prior TriMathlon competition, Mathnasium of Summit and Chatham proudly announced the first place national winner for 5th Grade—Raghav Pant of Short Hills who took home over $2,000 in cash and other prizes. Competitions like the TriMathlon are a first step towards building a culture that fluently speaks this universal language as well as a culture in which mathematics represents a rewarding challenge—not a tedious chore. For instance, Mathnasium’s TriMathlon’s Counting Game embodies the underlying logic of multiplication without drowning it in a table of “math facts” to be memorized. James Ralston, who with wife, Jodi, co-owns the center hosting New Jersey’s first national winner, rhetorically notes: “After all, did you teach your children to speak and read [English] by first making them memorize the dictionary?”

© 2015 DREW CAYMAN. Drew is a freelance writer focusing on math- and science-related matters, and can be reached at drew.cayman@ For more information about the 5th Annual National TriMathlon (October 17th and 18th, 2015) or Mathnasium’s locations across New Jersey, please visit to find your nearest center. October 2015


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