Derp-Alert: Run away! Head for the next post. This post is of possible interest only to: Math nerds, some teachers, bored Aspies, parents and friends of Aspies, and regular folk who have finished the back of the toothpaste tube for the n-teenth time and are looking for something with a little more bite (heh, heh–oh, Outlier Babe, you are a laugh riot…).
At age 6, I starting thinking: “Numbers don’t make any sense.” Why did we decide to represent four objects by the thing that looks like this ?:
Roman numerals were very logical.
Arabic ones seemed arbitrary, but I reasoned that there must be a logical basis for them, too. So I sat in Mrs. Thompson’s 2nd grade class writing the numbers 1 through 9 over and over on a piece of paper.
I kept experimenting until I finally figured it out: It made so much sense! It all had to do with angles:
Just like the Arabs (as I surmised) I drew straight-lined angular digits: A 1 with a single top hook forming 1 angle, a zig-zag 2 having 2 angles, and so on. I was so proud I’d solved the puzzle!
Interfering somewhat with my joy, I’d had to add a distinctly maze-like curl to the tail of the 9 in order to provide sufficient angles, and a base and a European crossbar to the number 7.
But I was far too pleased with
myself my hypothesis to abandon it over these huge, gaping minor failings.
Here are the numbers exactly as I drew them:
Roman Numeral Trivia: Even after Arabic numbers were adopted, Roman numerals were still sometimes preferred to Arabic ones during medieval times for their reasonable security against fiscal fraud.
For example, any digit of the number 2381 can be altered to cause a substantial difference (as much as 7000 by changing the 2 to a 9), but the equivalent MMCCCLXXXI cannot be easily altered to produce a new number.
– From Math Lair, Roman Numerals
(I can’t tell you how stunned I was to find my exact original numerals online–as well as other angle-based versions–and to discover for the first time when writing this post that others had also theorized that angles were behind the shapes of Arabic numbers.
Shout-out to my fellow geeks!
I liked that my hypothesis explained why Mrs. Thompson insisted we write the number 4 the closed-top triangle way, like it appeared in our math book, instead of the way most people wrote it:
Written the “Howdy Do!” way, the number 4 had five angles instead of four, so of course that way was wrong!
I further theorized that over time, people had gotten tired of drawing the 9’s complicated loop-de-loop tail, so they just kind of unwound it until the digit’s whole spine developed scoliosis.
The 7 lost its extra horizontal lines due to laziness, too (except in England, where they aren’t as lazy as we Americans).
Yes, I was quite the scientific thinker at my grand old age of 6.
A bonus benefit to my hypothesis was that I was able to use touch math from then on whenever I did addition:
I had already been using it for the digits 2 and 3, touching each pointy digit tip with my pointy pencil tip. (There are two points on the left side of the 2, three on the left of the 3.) When I added 2 plus 3, I just counted up as I touched each point:
Now I could do the same thing for the bigger digits, by touching each angle (or its imagined historical position) and counting up on those. Nice.
Many children devise digit-touch systems. A highly-talented Math instructor once told me that these are the children who become stronger in math concepts.
He said research suggests that children who don’t develop their own touch systems can be taught one to gain the same advantages.
There are commercially-available and cost-free touch math systems. The touch positions on digits differ among systems.
The most prevalent commercial system is Touch Math, described in the References. I take issue with that program’s name, and some of its features, also explained in the References.
Because I was weak in math, it’s too bad no teacher back then introduced me to dice math:
To instantly recognize the numbers up to 12 visualized like they are on die faces, and to automatically add and subtract by these groups. Now THAT would have been at least as helpful as touch math.
A gentleman named Owen Prince realized this many years back, and developed a dice-based touch math system he copyrighted as Dot Math:
Some of the opinion portions of Mr. Prince’s site are worded in a way that sounds a little…well…hmmm…perhaps it’s better not to say.
However, I recommend a visit there, anyhow, because his concept is worthwhile and because, after all the “copyright dispute” text (you’ll see what I mean), he gives a lovely, if oddly-worded, helpful review of math resources.
Please see also his Comment on this post, because he gives a detailed, impassioned and, to me, convincing argument in favor of using his system over the commercial Touch Math’s approach.
Okay, this post should end right here, but it’s just gonna keep going and going, so if you’re wise, you’ll stop reading now and go have a nice cup of tea. Enjoy!
Oh–I guess you may as well read the rest while it cools down, then, yeah?
Entirely off-topic, but another helpful idea:
That same talented math teacher, of 1st graders, did not teach or use the English words for 11 through 19 in his classroom until the end of the year.
He had his children use the Asian nomenclature “ten-one (versus “eleven”), ten-two (for “twelve”), ten-three…”. He continued this pattern when using his number poster that displayed numbers up to 100 (so, for “55” he said “five-ten-five”).
This teacher considered this a key feature in enabling his students to retain the place value concepts that he felt they developed naturally but which were otherwise interfered with by English number terminology.
Each year, all of that talented teacher’s 1st grade students ended their first year in school testing at a 3rd grade Math level.
(BTW, I can say from budget-driven experience that Cheerios threaded onto coffee stirrers stuck vertically into clay work just fine for abacuses, if you can prevent snacking to hide evidence of miscalculations.)
Relevant: From a June, 2010 review of literature on cross-cultural mathematics instructional and learning, Chinese Number Words, Culture, and Mathematics:
“Although it is not possible to disentangle the influences of linguistic, cultural, and contextual factors on mathematics performance, language is still seen as contributing to early cross-national differences in mathematics attainment.”
Imagine if every classroom across America instituted that teacher’s simple terminology change today.
Easily implemented, easily taught to teachers with five minutes of instruction (“Start doing it, it will feel odd, but it works, it’s easy to do, you’ll get used to it”).
Or, pick the 10 lowest-performing schools in each state and implement this in 5 of them. Compare the 10 schools in two years. Bet you’ll net impressive results in those 5 out of 10!
More on Asian Number Names
Touch Math vs. touch math
Note the capitalization: In this post, lowercase “touch math” means the generic touching of digits. It is irksome that TouchMath was permitted to copyright a phrase that can apply equally to non-commercial uses, and to uses other than touching pencil to paper.
The two words “touch math” could as easily mean the same as “hands-on Math”, such as the touching of beads or any items used to help in counting.
More on Touch Math
The commercial “Touch Math” program’s addition demonstration in 50 seconds (the program also supports other operations):
TouchMath can be effective, but it would have caused problems for me and my particular flavor of Aspie-ness, and I bet the same factors could bother other kids, too:
A) “Double touch points“.
As shown in the video, some touch points/dots count as 1, but others as 2. Remember that each spot will be an imagined tiny speck on the child’s own hand-drawn digits when actually used.)
I was a Math-phobic Aspie child. Different-valued dots would have given me the mental screaming-meemies.
B) Random positions of touch points.
The digits 7 and 9 in particular look like a confused scattering of dotted nonsense.
My particular flavor of Aspergers still freaks when confronted with this type of disorganization.
C) Touch points on top of digits, rather than adjacent.
This is off-putting for me as an adult; when a child, I believe it would have made it difficult for me to use the touch points with my handwritten digits.
The Dot Math’s Mr. Prince claims that he has research demonstrating that for some students this interferes with transference of skills to regular non-dotted digits. That is why his system, which originally had dots atop digits, was revised to have them adjacent. I would love to see research on this issue.
An ideological objection:
No generic phrase should be cornered by a commercial product. One can no longer perform a google search for anything to do with the generic concept–I had to plod through 29 pages of results before landing on one reference to non-copyrighted material: a lone research paper I found on Eric (and even that one may refer to the Big Touch).
Further, the two words “touch math” can easily be applied to any mathematical manipulation of real or virtual three-dimensional objects (e.g. counters, graph paper, a balance…). How about if I copyright the phrase “Edit Post”, or “Code HTML”? How about this one?:
Okay, the post is finally finished. You’d better go stick that tea in the microwave. Careful this time…