There was a film on TV recently in which the main character was a teenager having a tough time adjusting to the American high school experience after moving from Africa where she was home schooled. It was a total culture shock, but there was one subject she liked and excelled at because as she told one of her class mates “Maths is the same everywhere”. She was correct to the extend that the same mathematical principles always apply; there is one right answer to a given calculation.

Over the summer I had a student who had a similar life experience to the film character, in that his family moved from one country where he had spent most of his life to another country and another school system. He went from being one of the best in his class in Scotland to not being able to understand what they were doing in maths because it was done differently in his new school in Belgium. The language of this exclusive school was English and it catered for the children of diplomats and other foreign workers.

This student came here on holiday and stayed with Irish relatives. He came to Galway Maths Grinds for help. We discovered that despite having his confidence dented by his experience in the new school he was actually very quick to pick up on the principles behind the subject. The problem lay not in his ability but in the unfortunate fact that there are often several different terms used to describe a particular thing. One set of terms were used to describe things in his Scottish school and different terminology was used to describe the same things in his Belgium school. Realising this restored his confidence, and means that if he can relate the different terminology used in each school he can expect to be back on top form in maths class again.

It is not just when people change from one country to another, or even from one school to another that this confusion can arise. In some homes where parents try to help their children with homework there is often frustration and tears for both parents and children as each fails to communicate their ideas to the other. It is not because anyone is slow, or stupid. It is generally that parent and younger children in particular have been taught different methods for dealing with a particular kind of problem and neither understands the other.

Try doing the following calculation first and then watch the video below.