Teaching without words | Matthew Peterson | TEDxOrangeCoast

Teaching without words | Matthew Peterson | TEDxOrangeCoast

November 30, 2019 66 By Stanley Isaacs


Translator: Ariana Bleau Lugo
Reviewer: Maria Carolina Aguirre J. In school, the way of conveying ideas is through words. A teacher walks up to the board writes words, says words, students receive books with words, and are expected to respond to questions with words. The vast majority of teaching is done through words. But let’s look at who we’re trying to teach. Focusing on California, 25% of students are English language learners. Another 15% have language based learning difficulties such as dyslexia. An additional 20% fail language comprehension tests. And a large portion of the remaining students characterize themselves as visual learners. Left over, there’s only a tiny little segment of students for whom current teaching methods are a good fit. I was one of those students way down there. I have dyslexia. And for me words were really big learning barriers. I mean, I didn’t even learn to read until I was in fifth grade. Years later, I read a biography of Albert Einstein, and I discovered that he was dyslexic too. And one quote from him really struck me. He said: “The words of a language as they are written or spoken don’t play any role in my mechanism of thought.” Wow, wow! So, if words are not needed for great math and science thinking, then maybe words are not needed for great math and science teaching. So, when I started investigating how we might be able to teach without words, I was shocked at how language heavy even pre-school materials are. Look at this worksheet I ran across. “Color the shape that is the same as the first shape in each row.” They even have it in Spanish. So I wondered what would happen if we remove all those words and hand it to some four-year-olds along with some crayons, and don’t say anything. This is what happens. (Laughter) We didn’t tell them what to do, and so they did whatever they wanted. But how do we tell students what to do without words? Here’s one way. Interactive software with informative feedback. If you click on the wrong thing, it shows you why you were wrong. And when you click on the right thing, it shows you why you were right. And you can help a little penguin across the screen. OK, so this works for shapes. But what about things like word problems? I mean, how can we do those without words? Well, here’s a typical word problem from a second grade text book. Ostriches have two legs. How many legs does a group of three ostriches have all together? We can translate this into a completely word free problem. Again, if you don’t know what to do when you get it wrong, say, you pick eight legs, it shows you why that’s wrong. You picked too many. And when you get it right, it shows you why it’s right. The feedback teaches the students. It doesn’t just replace the words. It provides more instruction than the words ever did. And this visual feedback is so powerful that we can use it to teach really sophisticated subjects. This is pretty sophisticated. This is a page from an Algebra I textbook. A very language heavy approach and here’s what it does to our kids. (Laughter) Over 70% of students fail to learn this stuff. Now here’s a video game teaching that very same content. Here students are learning to factor and solve quadratic equations, all done visually, with informative feedback. And because these games allow students to touch, feel, see, and interact with the math it’s able to clear out many of the mysteries about why and how math works. For instance, when only done through words, students often find it mysterious why multiplying two negative numbers produces a positive number. But, when done visually, like in this block stretching game, students can see how multiplying by a negative number not only stretches but also flips the block in opposite direction. And then, when you multily it by a negative number again, it ends up flipping it again back to positive. It’s not mysterious anymore, it’s fascinating. And so, we created hundreds of these games to teach all the math concepts, conceps from pre-K to Algebra I. Here’s some exponents, and some fractions. We were basically able to boil all math down to how do you help a little penguin across the screen? But does it work? UC Irvine recently conducted a study where they put these visual games into 106 schools in Orange County. And after one year we’re able to triple the rate of growth in Math proficiency. (Applause) And last year we replicated this result in Silicon Valley, Las Vegas, Chicago and Houston. (Applause) This simple innovation of removing the language barriers is able to elevate Math proficiency everywhere we put it. And of course, increasing standardized test scores is great. But we also want to make sure we increase real mathematical thinking. And we definitely see that too. Because, instead of just throwing a bunch of words at students, we create rich opportunities for them to connect their own dots, in their own heads, about how Math works. And when students play an active role in figuring things out they want to talk about it. It sparks mathematical talk. And in this way a language free approach can actually improve language skills. A striking example of this is a young autistic student named Omar, shown her with his dad. Omar had such difficulty with language that he only spoke in single words. Never in full sentences. Not even to his parents. And when Omar’s school started using our program his teachers were astonished at how gifted Omar was in Math. They never knew. But more amazingly, Omar started talking, and the first full sentences he ever spoke were about these mathematical ideas he was experiencing in these visual games. And he’s now excelling in school, in both Math and English, and has completely changed his life. All those familiar with TED understand the importance of saying a lot in a few words. And I think the idea worth spreading here is that all students, not just students like me and Omar, but all students, can benefit profoundly, from some opportunities to learn without any words at all. Thank you. (Applause)