Maths and English: not so different

The other week I was sitting in the lunch room on my first day of casual teaching at a new school. There are only two Catholic high schools in Lismore, so it was somewhat inevitable that I ran into a teacher from my high school days (which, to be honest, weren’t all that long ago). She asked if I was teaching English, and this got me thinking.

I am fortunate to have a reasonable natural aptitude for both maths and English. My HSC mark for Extension 1 Maths was just one mark above my English Advanced score and it could have very easily have been the other way round. It is completely plausible that I would be teaching English rather than maths, and was a fair assumption of my colleague to make. My colleague’s question prompted a discussion about the nature of mathematics and English and how I consider them to be two fundamentally similar subjects.

I view Maths and English to be much more closely related than Maths and other science subjects. This viewpoint has taken significant time to develop, and has involved me developing and challenging what I perceive to be the nature and purpose of mathematics. Whilst other science subjects often use mathematics to solve problems, on a more basic level I perceive the closer relationship to be between Maths and English.

Maths and English are fundamentally about communication. Your ability to clearly articulate your thinking and the reasons for it are key to success in both Maths and English.

My honours thesis was based heavily in geometry, which I’ve always loved because it’s so similar to English. I view solving a geometry proof and writing an English essay as essentially the same thing. Both have somewhat of an essay structure: starting with some sort of introduction, a series of statements supported by reasons/theorems/examples, and a conclusion.

Teaching Maths and teaching English are about teaching concepts. I enjoy teaching Maths because I’m teaching kids HOW to do things, rather than teaching content. It’s about learning processes and how to approach problems. It’s learning skills in critical thinking rather than delivering facts. My job is not to help them memorise content, but rather to help them engage with and manipulate content. Whilst the concepts and processes you learn in Maths and English are different, the premise is the same. However, teaching these concepts is supported by a level of fluency in facts and key ideas: be it spelling, syntax, knowing a few formulae, or your times tables.

Both Maths and English require an adept capacity to be analytical. Tackling a Maths problem and approaching an English question require a fundamentally similar mindset. Usually it starts with thinking “what is this question asking me to do?” shortly followed by “how am I going to do that? What information do I have already to help me answer this question, and what other information do I need to find in order to successfully complete it.” A students’ capacity for success in both Maths and English is directly related to their capacity to critically evaluate and analyse texts, problems, and materials, and to manipulate existing knowledge to ‘solve’ these problems.

Considering the links between Maths and English requires challenging what you consider to be the fundamental nature of Mathematics. Do you consider Maths to be a static, unified body of interconnecting structures and truths? Or do you consider mathematics to be a useful, if unrelated collection of facts, rules and procedures? Or, finally, do you consider Maths to be dynamic, problem-driven, and open to revision? By examining other subject areas, and challenging what we hold true about our own subject areas, we have the opportunity to add freshness and innovation to our own teaching practice. It’s not a case of reinventing or redefining the wheel, rather it’s a chance to confront our beliefs in order to be the best teachers we can be, helping our students achieve the best outcomes they can achieve.

Do you agree? Are maths and English similar? What are your beliefs of the nature of mathematics?


About madelinebevs

Mathematics teacher and researcher. Runner. I'm excited by mathematics education. Having taught high-school mathematics for several years I am currently studying a Master of Education (Honours) in mathematics education, with the aim to ‘upgrade’ to a PhD later this year. My research is addressing how the constructivist epistemology (more specifically explicit instruction in metacognitive and self-reflective strategies) influences students’ affective domain. Mathematics education and research excites me greatly. I’m thrilled that I have the opportunity to write and work in this area. This blog will be (mostly) a collection of opinion pieces published several times a week on contemporary issues in mathematics education, with an Australian focus. More often than not topics will be generated from recent news headlines.
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