Finding the Next Einstein

Why smart is relative

Teaching Without Words

A conversation with researcher Matthew Peterson

Matthew Peterson is an extremely smart person who as a child struggled with dyslexia and the way he was taught in the traditional school system—a system that focuses on words and numbers.

He overcame his early struggle to go on to earn undergraduate degrees in biology, electrical engineering, and Chinese language and literature and a doctorate in neuroscience.  He is currently the chief technical officer and senior scientist at the MIND Research Institute.

Yet it was his early experience that led him to create a program to teach math without words:

I had the opportunity to talk with Matthew about his personal experiences, why he created a way to teach math without words, and his thoughts on spatial creativity.

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JON: Some people have argued that TED talks are “all talk.”  Did you consider TED talking without words?

MATTHEW: Good question. The approach to teaching without words that I’m proposing makes heavy use of interactivity and instant informative feedback. This would turn a TED talk into an interactive experience, such as a game or a virtual world to explore. Interactive experiences have the potential for much more educational value than passively watching a video, but it requires the “audience” to invest more time and energy than viewing an 18 minute video.

What is ST Math? And why did you create it?  Do you think your program can help students who have spatial rather than mathematical or verbal strengths?  What are your goals for the program?

ST Math is an interactive approach to teaching math that focuses on spatial-temporal representations of mathematical ideas over language-based representations. Students move through the mathematics content by solving visual puzzles and challenging multi-step thinking problems. It typically starts off without any words, but brings words and symbols into the mix as students gain understanding of the raw concepts.

It’s very approachable for students who have language difficulties, but it’s certainly not limited to those students. In fact, students with high verbal skills often show some of the largest gains because they are forced to figure things out without the aid of their language strengths.

My ultimate goal is to help all students, K-12, become proficient and advanced in math.

Standardized tests today—including the SAT and ACT—typically do not include spatial measures.  Our school system focuses primarily on verbal and mathematical ways of thinking.  Do you think there are students today who are drowning in words and numbers but who would be engaged by teaching to their spatial strengths?

I agree that standardized math tests are highly verbal. You seem to imply that “mathematical ways of thinking” are different from spatial thinking, and I would disagree with that implication. I believe that spatial thinking is a form of mathematical thinking.

Are students drowning in words and numbers? I would say yes. We are not providing students opportunities to think spatio-temporally and solve problems without language. We are constantly telling students things instead of allowing them to figuring things out.

Do you think our society and culture values spatial intelligence?

I don’t think it’s valued as much as it should be. Some of the most difficult problems out there in science and technology are extremely difficult to describe using words, and require sophisticated visualization and spatial abilities to even begin to tackle them. As a society, we should be investing more in the development of spatial abilities.

We talk a lot about creativity today.  You mentioned how Einstein’s creative thought process did not include anything verbal.  When we use the term creativity today, do we think about how creative some spatial thinkers—like Einstein—can be?

When we talk about creativity, we often imply artistic creativity, and we forget about the importance of creativity in mathematics. In ST Math, we put a big emphasis on creative problem solving and give students lots of exposure to non-routine problems. In fact, the majority of ST Math content puts students into situations that they’ve never seen before and they must reason their way through with very little outside help. They end up building a lot of muscle in the creative problem solving area.

Could you tell me more about your research?  What are some of your most exciting projects?

There are a lot of exciting projects going on, for example, we have a research program in place to boost working memory capacity. There is a lot of debate in the field about whether this is even possible, so it’s really exciting to do innovation in this area, especially when the initial indications point to potential breakthroughs in the advancement of cognitive function. If you are wondering how this relates to math education, I can tell you that limited working memory is one of the biggest obstacles to reaching the goal of getting all students proficient or advanced in Math. Even small increases in working memory capacity could open up some of the bottlenecks that we are running up against.

© 2012 by Jonathan Wai

You can follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or G+. For more of Finding the Next Einstein: Why Smart is Relative go here.

Jonathan Wai, Ph.D., is a psychologist, writer, and research scientist at Duke University.

 
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