Sunday, 25 March 2012

Cultural Perspectives and Observations on Learners. 2: My personal "pi"spectives



On Sunday, March 25th Luna's student Atsuko Katanaga made her first ever presentation to English teachers, at a Shinshu JALT meeting in Agata-no-Mori. She presents all over the world, in English, in her field of mathematics. She is a leading expert in singularity (which I do not understand even a little bit) and teaches mathematics at Shinshu University. Her presentation was very interesting, and generated a lot of discussion. In my opinion, maths is a foreign language! Way to go Atsuko - you are inspiring!

Atsuko Katanaga presented her opinions on “The Cultural Differences in teaching” based on her experiences teaching π. Katanaga is a senior assistant professor of Mathematics at Shinshu University and not a language teacher; her audience was quickly assured that she was nevertheless a master of `foreign languages` - which maths seems to be to a lot of people (and I suggest especially English teachers!)

Katanaga’s first slide where she proceeded to define π had everyone shrinking back in their seats. She baffled everyone with a Japanese pnemonic which is supposed to assist memorising Pi and informed us that other languages do similarly. She also showed us her π pies, as promised – π Day is celebrated by mathematicians worldwide on March 14th. Don’t get it?

On a weekend when the USA is trying to retain presidency of the World Bank, Katanaga showed the 2009 results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) for 15 year olds. http://www.oecd.org/document/61/0,3746,en_32252351_32235731_46567613_1_1_1_1,00.html
Japanese concerns to be languishing in 9th; UK & USA barely made the top 30.

Questions from the floor pointed provoked considerable interest:
·         Katanaga’s use of (a worldwide norm for approximation -and available in Word 2007) when Japanese schools teach another symbol which is neither.
·         Katanaga explained that A’ for mathematicians represents “A Prime”. Japanese students are taught to express this as “A dash” – but a dash is _ _ _!
·         Maths is not continually assessed in later life. Being unable to work out change in a shop does not induce the same ‘shame’ that manifests itself with an inability to communicate with a stray foreigner. How often do we hear people apologise “I can’t do maths”?
·         Japanese children are not taught to estimate i.e. have a rough idea of what the answer should be before actually doing the math. Witness some of the enormous ‘errors’ that were broadcast wrt radiation readings post Fukushima meltdowns.

‘Nittori education’ policy also came up with ingenious idea of making π ≈ 3. I hope there are no graduate engineers of that era building bridges or working in nuclear power stations... Reassuringly, π ≈ 3.14 again since 2011.

So much for ‘making things easier’ – struck me that using katakana achieves the same inappropriate non-result for English language learners.

Katanaga cited her experience observing a Montessori school in the USA, where children were engaged in self-reflecting learning at their own pace, uninterrupted. Children had to understand what they were doing. Students created their own agenda, chose and solved problems. Images of the classroom displayed children co-operatively engaged in informal ie tableless environment vs very predictable rigid & teacher at the front as giver of knowledge in a Japanese classroom.

Katanaga’s observations of a Scottish classroom of 14 year olds where learning  was to be collaborative, active and cognitive. The motto “No question is a silly question” rang true for the audience, lamenting that does not seem to be the case in Japan. In Scotland the following:
·         Self-confidence – I want to learn
·         Self-confidence – I can learn
·         Self-awareness – I know I can
·         Self-sufficient – I know how to
Self-assessment was also built in, with students using traffic light analogy whether they ‘got it’ (green), ‘a bit woolly’ (amber) or ‘didn`t go in’ (red)

Nakamura & Seino both then asked if π were being taught to early in Japan. Katanaga said ‘Yes and no’. You need the value of π ≈ 3.14 to calculate the area of a circle – it gets the job done. However, to have children exposed to abstract concepts such as irrational numbers at an early age is counter-productive, and should be left till later. It occurred to me that English teachers might want to replace irrational numbers with insanely hard grammar structures. Likewise, teaching a child to read (phonics) at an early age will give them the tools to get the job done at an early age – get all abstract and technical later (if you have to).

This is how she summarised her πspective:

Japan
overseas
Teacher
Teach
Encourage
Students
Look, write, think
Listen, think, talk
class
Same age
Mixed/streamed

Disclaimer: Atsuko Katanaga is my student, but her presentation was entirely her own work & unpracticed.