Words and Numbers

Miles is just beginning to read in earnest. Had a classic first reading experience with him last night, working our way through the first few pages of Green Eggs and Ham (couldn’t ask for a more textbook test harness). Interesting to be reminded of how deeply we’ve internalized the arbitrariness of our language, and how profoundly the unintuitive bits strike someone just learning our non-rule rules for the first time.

Capitalizing on the words and spelling patterns he’s learned so far, M wanted to know why “do” isn’t spelled “doo,” why “edge” isn’t spelled “ej” and was pretty peeved about the seemingly random presence of silent “e” (not to mention the silent “l” in “would”).

Numbers always make sense, but languages only make sense when they feel like it.

But why???

How can you explain such a thing to a 5-year-old who barely knows what history means, let alone the migration of cultures and evolution of languages? Those are even harder to explain than the fact that the “b” in “lamb” is slightly less subtle than the “b” in “subtle.”

I do not like them in a boat, I do not like them with a goat. I do not like them, Sam I am.

So we’re ditching English around the house and doing immersion Esperanto instead. And we’re switching our keyboards to Dvorak. OK, that’s a joke, but this is serious: Miles’ school teaches only the metric system, from kindergarten on. Admirable, or not so much?

Music: Elvis Costello :: Let Him Dangle

19 Replies to “Words and Numbers”

  1. It sounds pretty goofy and arrogant to only teach the metric system instead of both the metric system and the feet/inches/miles etc. system. While the system of measurements Americans use may be out of sync with most of the rest of the world, Miles will still live in a nation where most people he’s surrounded by are using this system. It sounds like a great way to encourage a sense of alienation from his home country and a way for him to be have an unnecessary form of mild illiteracy. I can’t help but thinking that there are some very dogmatic, controlling people running his school and making decisions like this. I don’t think there is anything admirable about it. They may as well teach him to spell English words phonetically to the exclusion of their traditional spelling and suffer the long-term consequences of doing so.

    If Miles is asking Why??, it’s time to spill the beans to him–that much of our world and our way of doing things does not make sense and is often inane. Just wait until you have to explain the Electoral College to him in a few years. ;-)

  2. Come to think of it, you might explain to Miles that every word in our language and its spelling has a history, that English words, like American people, come from all over the place and show in their spelling and pronunciation their original homes and time periods.

  3. I don’t feel so strongly about the metric thing, not at all. I see it more akin to a child growing up in a dual-language home. He’ll get metric at school, imperial everywhere else. If anyone is “alienated,” it’s Americans who are alienated from the way the rest of the world does things. The empowered kids will be the ones who can span the divide.

    some very dogmatic, controlling people running his school

    No, it’s a co-op. All of the school’s policies are the policies of the collective. No one is running the school but us.

  4. Also, think about how the U.S. is falling behind in its ability to produce globally competitive scientists, and the commitment to sciences that this policy represents.

  5. “some very dogmatic, controlling people running his school

    No, it’s a co-op. All of the school’s policies are the policies of the collective. No one is running the school but us.”

    Gotcha! ;-)

  6. [{}]Also, think about how the U.S. is falling behind in its ability to produce globally competitive scientists, and the commitment to sciences that this policy represents.[{}]

    really? i thought we still had the premier research facilities, staffed with grads from our still premier educational institutions. (now many of those grads originated from other countries, but they still come here). Do you have ref’s?

    I also don’t see teaching metric-only as representing a commitment to science, but rather agree with Larry’s posts.
    Or maybe i find this to be one more instance of scientism at work in the real world (scientism = political correctness for geeks and nerds :). but that’s a rather dead horse for me….

    baald

  7. Refs: I feel like I’ve been reading stories about how America isn’t producing top scientists for years now. Here a few interesting ones:

    ABC News

    US National Science Board’s task force on National Workforce Policies for Science and Engineering

    “Its central argument is that American strength in science and engineering (S&E) is threatened by an over-reliance on foreign-born scientists”

    Newsweek

    Those opinions are disputed by others of course. But true or not, the world runs on metric. Carter tried to get us there, Reagan dismantled that effort, the U.S. is alienated from the world as a result. Students aren’t disadvantaged by learning metric in school (as I said above, they get plenty of Imperial in the rest of their lives). To me it seems to be all upside, no downside.

    At first I thought it was a bit odd, but I raised it with M’s kindergarten teacher this morning and she responded that most schools are doing the same these days – that it’s not as unusual as it sounds to us fogeys. The National Council of Math Teachers recommends it.

    She also reassured me by noting that when following recipes the kids actually measure in cups and tablespoons, not milliliters! :)

    I have to say, I’m kind of surprised by your reactions to this. It seems like all upside, no downside to me.

  8. I just think it’s good to be fully conversant with both with both systems. I learned metric in high school and am as conversant with it as I need to be in my work life–it would have been nicer to have gotten used to it earlier and with more time devoted to it. Aren’t kids taught the metric system now? Sure kids will get exposed to the imperial system outside of school, but to get comfortable with the math of, say, figuring out acreage, volume expressed in cubic feet, global warming in Fahrenheit degrees, etc. it’s good to practice that in school, just as it is to practice translating decimal numbers into binary and other bases.

    Unless I’m blind, the NCTM page didn’t mention teaching metric in school to the exclusion of the imperial system.

  9. Metric is fine and dandy.

    Driving through Vermont there are signs like “Welcome To Montpelier, Capital Of Vermont :: Bienvenue A Montpelier, Capitale Du Vermont.” The road signs are in both imperial and metric measurements.

    Cross into Quebec and all the signage is French only and metric only. This despite the fact that Canadians use miles frequently, and English is one of the national languages.

    Personally, I find Vermont more urbane and welcoming.

    Give children choice. Allow them to decide what they want to use and learn and absorb. Arbitrary decisions like “metric only!” are still a form of censorship. And that has no place in schools.

  10. “A form of,” yes. Parenthood has a lot to do with censorship. There’s stuff I’d censor out of a kid’s life.

    But in this case it’s scientific knowledge. A deliberate decision has been made to *not* teach something. Clearly not on moral grounds. And that strikes me as absolutely wrong in a school.

    And really, what does it accomplish? Miles will need to understand imperial measurements in his life. Why hide things?

  11. Why do you think the students at this school *won’t* understand Imperial measurements? Is school the only place they learn? The world is saturated with measurement. It’s everywhere. It’s immersion. On the other hand, solid metric understanding is something many kids don’t have. Do you think the parents and teachers are so ignorant or mean that they would willfully disadvantage the students? This is a thrilling, vibrant, engaged, inquisitive, learning-heavy school. This is a kindergarten where your kid comes home telling you about the water cycle in the first week and native americans the second and the concept of mathematical balance the third and explains why we have to take care of mother earth the fourth. This is not some kind of intellectual backwater.

    The metric thing is such a minor point in the scope of what he’s being exposed to here. And it’s a positive point. Not censorship. Not some kind of cruel punishment… Just met a teacher from another school today whose family is doing what it can to send their kid to this school next year because he’s loving what he’s getting from the kids who come out of it. Talked to a guy last night who writes textbooks for elementaries and he thought the metric emphasis was a brilliant move. What is so shocking about it?

  12. What is so shocking about it?

    The fact that in a vibrant, interesting school like that there are teachers willing to be told to actively NOT teach something.

    Heck, reading is everywhere. Reading and letters are immersion. The logic that says, “We don’t have to teach imperial measurements,” could also be used to say, “We don’t teach English.”

    It’s very possible for a great institution to make a bad decision. That’s what I think this is. I’m not knocking the entire school or its teaching process, merely what I see as a poor choice.

  13. @mnep: It’s called curriculum. No curriculum teaches everything. You pick and choose. By your line of reasoning, all curricula that don’t include all possible ways of doing things are tantamount to censorship.

    YOU walk into a kindergarten class and try explaining to kids who are just learning to count higher than 20 what it even means to have multiple incompatible measuring systems.

    @Larry: Yep, I did :) It seemed peculiar to me at first too. But I was totally unprepared for the vitriol it’s brought out in this thread. And while hearing the thoughts from the three of you has been interesting, I put more stock in the opinions I’ve gotten from educators I’ve been talking to about this, which have been all positive. So now I no longer wonder whether it’s a good idea – I’m confident that it is.

  14. [{}]YOU walk into a kindergarten class and try explaining to kids who are just learning to count higher than 20 what it even means to have multiple incompatible measuring systems.{[]}

    sounds like a missed opportunity to talk about conversion mathematics.

    none of us are saying DON’T teach metric. rather, don’t ignore the vernacular. jeez, i might even argue that a kid (and the adult he turns into) able to cross convert, able to think in fractions and decimal, able to talk to his plumber or handyman as well as the mechanic of his benz, might have a more limber cognitive apparatus than if he had been taught otherwise….

    anyway, if they are just doing this for the kindergarteners, i guess it’s a bit different. certainly it’s good to get them counting, measuring, quantifying, and metric is easier. i’m just for inclusion rather than exclusion.

    btw USA is not the only nation still using imperial, AFAIK. UK does too.

  15. No, I never implied they were doing this just for kindergartners. It’s a curriculum point for the whole K-5.

    Basically, it comes down to this. These are professional educators and childhood development experts. If there was a downside to all of this, they wouldn’t be doing it. I don’t get how people who study this stuff for a living wouldn’t see a downside, while you lot do.

  16. “These are professional educators and childhood development experts. If there was a downside to all of this, they wouldn’t be doing it. I don’t get how people who study this stuff for a living wouldn’t see a downside, while you lot do.”

    That sounds verrry trusting. You don’t think that they could have an ideology that shapes their opinions of what is an upside or downside? The inverse of this might be a conservative Christian parent buying into all the recommendations for curricula by the major home-schooling experts from Colorado Springs, reassured by all their “research” and “expertise”.

    Scot, you know we’re giving you a hard time because we love you, don’t you? :-)

  17. Of course there’s trust! You can’t select a school that doesn’t have a curriculum. And you can’t be there to monitor every little input that goes into their heads (though our co-op gives us a lot more opportunity to monitor than we’d have otherwise). Selecting a school is a big deal. Reviewing the credentials and track record of the school is a big part of it. Feeling out the community of parents and teachers is a big part of it. Based on all of that, you decide that you trust the school and its teachers and its curriculum enough that you want to send your kid there. I don’t know how one would select a school without a large dose of trust – that’s exactly what choosing a school is – deciding whom to trust with your kid’s education and development.

    Scot, you know we’re giving you a hard time because we love you, don’t you? :-)

    Yes :)

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