Tag Archives: meaningful

Math is a Language

The Gutenberg printing press was revolutionary because it provided a faster way to share words. In turn, these words and how they were structured were representations of ideas used to make sense of the world around us.

Math is a language with words and other symbols that also makes sense of the world around us. We consume and know more math than we realize or allow ourselves credit for.

When buying the latest iteration of an iPhone, we may call forth algebra. How much will you pay if you buy an iPhone for $1000 and pay $80 a month for service? Well, that depends on how many months you will use this iteration before moving on to the next iPhone. The number of months is unknown so algebra gives us a symbol to represent this unknown number of months, x (or n or whichever letter you want).

Just as there is formal and informal English (or other language), we can engage algebra formally or informally. You don’t need to write an equation such as y = 1000 + 80x to figure out how much you will pay. You can do this informally, compute 80 times 10 months + 1000 on the calculator. Then try 80 times 12 months etc.

Math provides us a means of organizing and communicating ideas that involve quantities like the total cost for buying an iPhone.

The difficulty in learning math is that it is often taught out of context, like a secret code. In contrast, a major emphasis in reading is comprehension through meaning, such as activating prior knowledge (see below).

In fact, math absolutely can and, in my view, should be taught by activating prior knowledge. My approach is to work from where the student is and move towards the “mathy” way of doing a problem.

Without meaning, students are mindlessly following steps, not closer to making sense of the aspects of the world that involve numbers.

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Relations Introduction Video Lesson

This video provides instruction to introduce the definition and conceptual meaning behind algebraic relations.

Relations Video


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Documents for Webinars on Supporting Students with Autism in Math


Link to Drop Box folder for webinar on Task Analysis

Link to Drop Box folder for webinar on Making Math Meaningful (note: the folder is not populated with handouts with excerpts shown on the video. These documents will be available in the folder by Oct 16.

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Making Discount Meaningful


Educators teaching math typically start with the “mathy” stuff first. For example, for finding the sales price teachers may start with showing students the steps to calculate (photo below).

I start with the concept, either with a pictorial representation or actual objects to represent the underlying concept. In the photo above, I show an object (related to the student’s interest – this student is into weight training) on sale. The $50 circled in yellow represent the original price. I explain the concept of being on sale and discount and show that 20% is $10 to take away (marked out). This leaves $40 (in green) which is the sales price. This allows for conceptual understanding before showing him the “mathy” way of doing the problem.

compute discount

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One model for memory is called the Information Processing Model or Dual Storage Model.


Here’s the suggested process in this model in a class instruction context:

  1. Our senses receive stimuli. In the classroom students hear the teacher or a classmate talking, see the teacher’s notes or the note being passed to them, smell various things in class, taste their gum etc. 
  2. The sensory register filters out most stimuli which means the teacher’s lesson is competing with all the other stimuli for attention. Most students are either visual or hands on learners yet the majority of instruction is conducted through auditory means. Information in a lesson that is meaningful or interesting is more likely to make it through the register.
  3. The information that makes it to the working memory is processed. Working memory has a limited capacity. Like a computer, if it is attempting to process a lot at one time it slows down. It is hard for some students to process a lot of auditory information if they are a visual learner so as they are attempting to process they may be missing other parts of instruction. This is why scaffolding and other strategies are important. They help reduce the amount of information the student has to process. The working memory also attempts to organize and make sense of the information -Gestalt Theory. In the photo below are some examples. When I present the image below under “closure” and ask people what they see, the response is almost always “a triangle.” The really is no triangle there but the brain fills in the gaps. The brain wants to make the visual information meaningful. 
  4. The information that makes it to long term memory is filed away. Effective learning means the stored information can be readily retrieved. Think of computer files or files in a file cabinet. I have a file for Gabriel’s IEPs so I can easily retrieve them. Contrast that with how a student may stuff his homework assignment into his bookbag but later cannot find it. Effective storage is enhanced when the information is organized and makes sense. This is helped by making the information meaningful or by addressing prior knowledge (e.g. new IEPs filed with old IEPs).

Most if not all educational strategies would address some aspect of this model.

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