Clarification on the purpose of my planned experiment on “practical math”

What follows is the response to some questions my friends Philippe and Samar raised about the experiment I describe here (previous post).

1) How is the normative context you are proposing different from a school math context?

I try to embed math problems in narratives that remind children of everyday, familiar situations that involve observance or transgressions of exchange and distribution rules. Such narratives, I believe, will awaken children’s sense of justice and motivate them to balance a situation that they see as unbalanced or unfair (“A gave a present to B but B didn’t make a matching present to A”, “A stole something from B”, etc.) Such narrative contexts should remind children about the institutions and rules or reciprocity that govern exchange and distribution. So, this is very different from the formal, instructional school context.

I’m not primarily focused on the educational applications. My questions are theoretical. I’m interested in mapping the social aspects of human cognition. If my work gets the desired results, then the educational applications might follow… but that’s not a primary goal for me. The experiment aims at proving a theoretical point.

2)  Do you think that the social/normative context of math problems would boost children numerical competence?

Yes, my hypothesis is that the social-normative context of these math problems will probably improve children numerical competence. But I would not expect any deep or long term effects from just one session. My idea is as follows: if we can use this one session to show just a local effect of the narrative context on how children construe and solve these problems, this is relevant enough. This would prove that social meanings are transferred to the mathematical domain and have an impact on children’s performance. I think that proving such local effect is much simpler than doing a longitudinal study (which might be a second step in the research). I also proposed to “do some standardized numeracy tests (perhaps those used by Opfer & Siegler, Dehaene, Piagetian conservation tests, etc.) right after the main task in order to evaluate if each of these normative contexts has “sensitized” the child to quantities in a special way.” In other words, we would not be testing for any lasting effects, but we would test numerical competence and/or quantity conservation right after the main experiment, to see whether this “sensibility” to number gets transferred to different problems. So this would only test for immediate effects, but we are interested in the child’s performance in a second, apparently unrelated problem, in the domain of math, to see if there is a “spill-over” from one situation to the other.

3) Why should normative and social context as provided in the narrative improve children’s performance?

Math problems that involve some kind of “equalization” between different parties are social in nature. This type of math was created historically to deal with such social problems (barter and purchase, paying back, getting even, managing debt). The history of math seems to go hand in hand with the history of human exchange and distribution systems. For example, the popularization of coins and the establishment of a class of merchants seems to happen at the same time as (and probably facilitate) the emergence of formal arithmetic. Calculus (developed simultaneously by Newton and Leibniz) is invented at a time when the first stock exchanges are being created.

We are not merely providing children with a social metaphor in this experiment, we are re-embedding math problems in their original social context. It’s the meaningfulness of the situation that should impact on children’s performance. This is the idea I want to test.

4) Where’s the novelty of your approach? 

Most current researchers (Dehaene, Opher, Siegler, Spelke, Lourenco, among many others) are interested in the innate, Approximate Number System (ANS) that humans share with other animals. Although there are differences among authors in the details, there is consensus that such a system is a pre-condition for the development of symbolic number and arithmetic (which are unique to humans). These authors show that symbolic number builds upon such innate capacity but they don’t provide good explanations about how we go beyond the ANS and up to human math. They mention “culture” but they treat culture as a mere collection of arbitrary conventions, technologies and techniques. In the case of number, culture is seen as providing a more or less fast and effective set of arbitrary procedures to perform calculations.

So, again, my immediate aim is not so much to discover the best strategy for training kids or to improve academic performance in the long term, but to prove a theoretical point about the social nature of math.


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