Monday, 16 Aug 2010

For immediate release Monday August 16 2010
English restricts the language of mathematics

The international mathematics education community’s capacity to study, understand and enact classroom practice is constrained by the dominance of the English language, Professor David Clarke will tell the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) annual conference in Melbourne today.

In the opening keynote address Professor Clarke, the Director of the International Centre for Classroom Research at the University of Melbourne, will tell delegates that the emergence of English as the ‘lingua franca’ has restricted international access to some of the subtle and sophisticated concepts used by mathematics teachers and teacher educators in non-English speaking countries.

“The theories we construct are constrained to those ideas and relationships we are capable of naming,” Professor Clarke says. “Each community has developed its own language to describe those things it values. This is particularly true in education. The insights of a culture are embedded in those activities it has chosen to name.”

Professor Clarke’s presentation will focus on a study of the use of mathematical language in the classroom in which he analysed video records of five mathematics lessons from each of 21 classrooms in Berlin, Hong Kong, Melbourne, San Diego, Seoul, Shanghai, Singapore and Tokyo and compared the extent to which students or teachers used key mathematical terms as a proportion of all classroom conversation.

In some of the classrooms studied –for example some of the classrooms in Shanghai, Melbourne, San Diego and Singapore – the spoken use of mathematical terms was actively promoted. Some other classrooms, such as those in Seoul, provided very limited opportunities for students to ‘talk mathematics.’

“These differences in classroom practice reflect important differences in valued forms of learning and in the means by which different communities think learning is best promoted,” Professor Clarke says.

He says that, despite the frequently assumed similarities of practice in Asia, the study revealed profound differences in the nature of students’ spoken mathematics in different Asian classrooms.

“What really interests me is that these cultures have a history of success in mathematics and yet their classroom practice can appear at first glance to contest pretty much all of the things that we’ve taken as a given,” Professor Clarke says. “By examining learning in such contrasting classrooms, we have a much better chance to identify those conditions most conducive to mathematics learning and also to see the role that culture plays in shaping both our educational goals and the practices by which we attempt to achieve them.”

ACER Research Conference 2010, Teaching Mathematics? Make it count, takes place at the Crown Conference Centre, Melbourne on 16 and 17 August. Further information is available from


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