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How to Learn Mathematics Using Language Acquisition Methods

March 16, 2016 Blog

Memorization comes first both in language and mathematics learning, says Dr. Barbara Oakley, who teaches engineering at the University of Oakland. Her story, beginning with her years as a Russian language specialist in the army, and later as a translator on a Russian fishing boat, has the ring of authenticity, especially when one considers that she started as a self-described math-phobe. So how did she learn math and science so well that she is now a professor of engineering?

She did it by applying the memorization and repetition-based techniques she had learned while studying language at the University of Washington. With apologies to the many language instructors who emphasize understanding from the outset, Dr. Oakley claims that one must first master “chunks” of a subject. These chunks correspond to the building blocks of whatever subject is being studied. In mathematics the equivalent to vocabulary and the learning of simple phrases are basic equations. Once these are learned, Dr. Oakley explains, understanding has a substrate in which to put down roots. It is not a matter of understanding complex explanations of grammar or mathematical principles, but of getting the basics down pat to the extent that they can be instantly reproduced by the mind. Only then does understanding in any conceptual depth have a chance to develop. Her method is rote memorization and, to that end, a lot of repetition.

This makes intuitive sense. It is also consistent with the latest developments in the understanding of neural plasticity. Dr. Oakley calls herself, in fact, Exhibit A for neural plasticity, and her testimony should be widely divulged throughout the educational community. In her Google talk, Dr. Oakley emphasizes the need not just to learn a field, but to learn how to learn as a concept in itself.

Her written article on the subject can be found in the fall 2014 edition of Nautilus. Her title, “How I Rewired My Brain to Become Fluent in Math” carries the subtitle “Sorry, education reformers, it’s still memorization and repetition we need.” Her book, A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra), is a must-read for educators and for all who wish to challenge themselves with a subject they may have considered far beyond their ability to learn.

For more on this subject, see www.ritasturamwirkala.com