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Mathematical Dialogue as a method of

teaching and learning mathematics

in high school

Boris Tsoniff
Research Proposal for Ph.D
( Mathematics education )


Dr Margot Berger

Somebody in my presence asked prof. Gelfand how to excite and develop in

pupils interest to maths. Without hesitation he answered: they have to be given
good problems . When I asked which problems he thinks are good he considered
for 5 seconds and said: good problems are interesting and simple ones .
From memoirs about prof. Gelfand

In my thesis I am going to investigate and propose one of possible solutions for two paradoxical
situations which any maths teacher working in the high school come across .

Paradox 1.
A teacher and pupils speak different languages. They use the same words but with different
sense. Besides they use different logics. Revising congruent triangles in grade 10, I rather
frequently came across the typical situation. After finding out that my pupils remember what
congruency is and understand the idea of the construction of triangles by three sides I ask them
to solve the harmless problem: construct the angle which is equal to the given one. After brief
silence the best advanced students absolutely correctly suggest me to measure the angle by a
protractor. My pupils logic is different. They are guided by the logic of the common sense
experience in measuring of angles. The word construct they miss subconsciously because it
does not belong to their active maths vocabulary. For them principal words are angle and
equal, and for me they are angle and to construct .

Paradox 2.
A teacher introduces maths to pupils explaining some theoretical conceptions ( rules, definitions,
theorems and so on ) in the language and the logic which pupils understand badly ( see
Paradox 1 ) and therefore absorb badly. To control the understanding a teacher asks pupils to
solve some problems. Now besides language and logic which pupils do not understand they have
to accomplish operations ( to solve, to prove ) which nobody taught them earnestly. One cannot
take seriously the opuses which are displayed on the dozens American educational sites with
pompous titles like ( for example )


There is the sponge part: when you soak up all the information you can discover (and a lot of
There is the shake part: when you shake out the facts and question the problem itself and start
to imagine all sorts of things.
There is the squeeze part: when you wring out the sponge and scribble down the most
promising splashes and driblets.
There is the bounce part: when you and another concerned with the problem toss embryonic
ideas back and forth until only the fittest survive.

There is the scratch part: like the above, but now you scratch brain against brain hoping to
spark a new notion.
There is the once-again-please part: when you examine the survivors in the cold light of
reason, abandon most, and incubate a few in the warm darkness of imagination.
There is the dry part: when you quit thinking about the damned problem and turn your mind to
pleasure or routine. (You only think you've stopped thinking.)
There is the yahoo part: when things connect and an idea pops into your head that turns out to
be the key to the solution. Often this happens when you least expect it and aren't even thinking
about the big problem.
There is the do part: when you use your particular talents and learned skills and those of others
concerned to shape and form the raw idea into a proper solution.
Then there is the itch part: which maybe should come first instead of last. The drive to solve
problems creatively -- with a new and original solution -- stems from some chronic itch;
dissatisfaction with all existing solutions. Even when the latest may be your own.

Now try to apply these guidelines to solve simple 2000 years old Chinese problem: The first
goose flies from the North Sea to the South Sea for 7 hours and the second goose flies from the
South Sea to the North Sea for 9 hours. If they start at the same time, when they meet?
Judge by the facts that for 2000 years Chinese invented gun powder, compass, porcelain, paper
( the list can be continued ) and Chinese students firmly take high positions in different maths
competitions, Chinese educators 2000 years ago wrote more deep manuals and Chinese pupils
solved this problem successfully.
The attempt ( deliberate or non-deliberate ) to resolve those paradoxes in US by reducing the
teachers language and logic to the pupils ones brought to the pitiable results. In according to the
survey, only two percents of teachers able to divide by in their minds ( V.Arnold ). Test for
university entry includes now the demand to divide 111 by 3 without a calculator.
In 2003 Boing Corporation used the following problem for staff selection ( graduate and postgraduate students ):
There are 100kg of cucumbers in the bag. It is known that 99% of a cucumber made of water.
After drying a little, only 98% of a cucumber made of water. What is the weight of the bag
now? Absolute majority won the 98kg answer ( correct answer is 50kg ).
I think that the way out from this paradoxical situation can be rather found in bringing the pupils
language and logic up to the teachers ones. This is not only my personal opinion. In front of you
fragment of the project of the base concept of mathematical education in Russian schools

Project of the educational standard in mathematics for the high school

Base level
Language and logic
Mathematical language as a part of a natural language, having its own distinctive features.
Culture of the mathematical speech. Mutual influence of the mathematical and
natural languages, origin of the mathematical terms and symbols. Combination of
stringency and subordination to the rules of the natural language as the most
important property of the mathematic language. Ability to formulate mathematical
clauses in oral and written speech. Equations and inequalities as predicative clauses
with variables. Constant and variable in mathematics and their analogues in natural
language. Universal and existential quantifiers as the logical equivalents for the
corresponding words of the natural language. Base laws of logic and rules of logical
deduction as a reflection of the natural language thinking. Universality of the laws of
logic and logical deduction rules. Logical paradoxes in mathematics and in natural
language. Inductive conclusion made on the base of intuition. Setting up a hypothesis
and it testing
As you can see , the base of this concept is the notion that Mathematics is a language and
ought to be teaching and learning as a language. I completely share this notion. Judging the
numerous articles ( especially in Russian educational magazines, where serious discussion about
future of Russian mathematical education is taking place ), with the same notion are agreed
majority of educators and practical teachers. A brilliant sentence Mathematics is a language too
is to be considered as a postulate for a long time.
What did Gibbs mean? Analogy is evident. As a natural language is not communication only
but also a repository of the collective social experience saved by generations as a mathematical
language is a repository of our knowledge about structure and logic of the Universe.
But is Mathematics a language in the linguistic sense? How does mathematical language
correlate with generative language? Why in spite of different types of generative languages
(analytic and synthetic ) does mathematical language remain an universal one? Is it a
subset (contraction ) or expansion of the generative language?
It is obvious that without answers to these questions the theoretical base for mathematical
language acquisition cannot be developed.
There are still more, crucial for my thesis, questions exist. They are questions about interrelation
between mathematical language and inner speech. Can inner speech be enriched by the
mathematical terminology ? Does inner mathematical speech exist? What is a predicativity
of inner mathematical speech in Vigotsky sense?
As an illustration I would like to demonstrate an attempt to record my own inner speech during
the solution of the arithmetical problem of average complexity. Please keep in mind that original
inner speech was recorded in Russian. The problem was found in the one of Internet forums.
I quote the problem as I got it from the Web-side:

I have no idea how to disprove 2 10500 16 is NOT a perfect square.

Inner speech solution

Prove negativeFactorize? Chap tried 10n 8 sum of cubes
rubbishCommon case n=1 36n=2216 62 ... 63 n=3
2016dont know36 not working16 216 200

interestingcan try 2 10n 216 200 no 2 10n 200 216

200 common factor 216 8 27 8 common factoraha!
200 (10n 1) 9 8 3wonderfulnow 200 (999...) 9 8 3how many
100 1 99 ... nin our case? 498idiotic numberany way common

111 498 familiardivisible by
factor 9try: 8 9 [25
37of course111 37 3 498 divide by 3evenly! 1663 3 [25
37 (001001...)

1)]27 and 82
common factorhave what? 8 9
we havenumber evenneed 3not divisible by 3proveeasy to
say 25 37 ? 925 three digitsbring in 925925... 1...last digit
6...166 times.. that's it 9+2+516166 times2656plus 1
2657add20not divisiblecant take ...
Solution of the problem
Write down the given number

in the form
and factorize it:

N 2 10500 16
N 2 10500 200 216
N 200 (10498 1) 9 8 3
N 25 8 9 (1...........1)

9 8 3
498 times

N 8 9 [25


498 times
Number (1..1) can be represented in the form :
( 111 111 111) = 111(001 001 001) = 37 3
(001 001 001)

166 times


N 8 9
3 [25
37 (001...........001)

166 times


N 8 27 [925



Notice that square root of N

N 6 6 [925
(001...........001) 1)]

can be a natural number, only if the expression in brackets ( which is obviously

even ) is divisible by 3.
Prove that N1 925 (001...........001) 1 is not divisible by 3.
166 times
Number is divisible by 3 only if the sum of its digits is divisible by 3.
To find the sum of digits of N1 rewrite it in the form:

N1 925...........925 1
166 times

Then the sum of digits 166 (9 2 5) 1 = 2657 . It is easy to check that the result
is not divisible evenly into 3 and therefore number N cannot be a perfect square.
If I manage to answer all those questions I will come to the core question of my thesis:
How to introduce mathematical language to the pupils?
L.Vigotsky wrote in his main book Thinking and Speech: What was once the dialogue
between different people becomes now the dialogue inside the brain Ideas of Vigotsky and
his scientific school show clearly in which direction I have to move. Language acquisition as any
knowledge acquisition is always a dialogue between the competent and zealous for knowledge,
because the inner speech is dialogic itself.
Acquisition by means of a dialogue doubtless is the most ancient form of education, and the sole
one existed before written language had been invented. Cabbalists successfully used the
acquisition dialogue right up to XIV century. Theory of dialogue was developed by Plato, Socrat,
M.Buber, M.Bakhtin, L.Vigotsky, V.Bibler. All of them emphasized cultural significance of a
dialogue and V.Bibler was an ideological inspirer of the group of educators and teachers, created
a school in which different subjects were taught on the base of the so named dialog of cultures
Accepting that Mathematics is a language and including it in the structure of the dialogue of
cultures we return to Mathematics the classical cultural significance which had been lost by
modern civilization.
Mathematical language is a dynamic structure which becomes more and more complicated as
our conceptions about Universe change. Not only semantic but logic of the language changes
dramatically. The gravitation theory of Newton as valid as the gravitation theory of Einstein. But
each one is valid in its own space geometry, with its own language ( space metric, imaginary
time, curvature of space) and logic ( dimension, observer, velocities addition ). Scientists now
consider mathematics as a hierarchy of structures and with corresponding hierarchy of the
mathematical languages of increasing complexity. Hierarchic formalization of the mathematical
languages creates selective barriers for those who studies mathematics. For any human being
there is a limit of mathematical language abilities. For me, for example, language of nonAbelian groups was a limit. I simply stopped to understand the language.
I think that for my thesis it will make sense to separate and work with only part of the
mathematical language which corresponds to our knowledge on the level of the end of XIX
century. I would name that part The school mathematical language . It covers all school maths
and approximately first two years of university maths education. In that way my work proceeds
on the school level with scientific research of my supervisor Dr. M.Berger ( The appropriation

of mathematical objects by undergraduate mathematics students: a study ). The language of the

school mathematics is still very close to the generative language, and its logic is close enough to
the logic of common sense.
Coming to the last group of questions I would like to note that Vigotsky school considers
education through activity as the only effective method of education. Activity in mathematics is
mostly solution of problems. Therefore solutions of problems ought to form the basis of the
mathematical dialogue. In mathematical dialogue pupils in natural way acquaint with
mathematical terminology and learn to solve problems step by step forming logic different from
the logic of common sense. So, what problems have a teacher to select for the dialogue?
I am going to use ideas of famous mathematician V.Arnold who thinks that the student graduated
from the university must know the solution of the certain minimum of the maths problems
(200 approximately). Drawing an analogy we can say that at the end of each year at school
starting from Grade 10 pupil must know the solution of the certain number of so called frame
problems. To the end of the Grade 12 there will be the same 200 problems ( 50 for each year ).
In my thesis I hope to describe some general principles of selection of the frame problems and to
find the quantitative criteria for such a selection.
Method of the Mathematical Dialogue cannot be the sole method of mathematical education.
Normal educational process made of three information streams:

extra- active ( from a teacher to pupils );

intro- active ( from a teacher to pupils );

inter- active ( information stream with changing directions ).

Investigation carried out in Moscow in 1985-91 ( 900 maths lessons ) showed that these three
components are in 5:4:1 ratio. But for so called strong maths teachers the same ratio is 4:4:2.
So strong teachers spend 20% of the time in dialogue with their pupils, which is twice more
than ordinary teachers do. It gives us some food for thought.

Prospective structure of work

Mathematical Dialog as a method of

teaching and learning mathematics
in high school
Chapter 1.

Dialog and dialogical speech.


Chapter 2.

Inner speech.

Chapter 3.

Inner speech: structure and language;

Inner speech as a dialogue;
Age - specific features of the inner speech;
Solution of problems in the inner speech;
Example of self-observation.

Mathematical language.

Chapter 4.

Dialogical education: history and traditions.

Dialogue idea development:
-Martin Buber;
- M.Bakhtin;
- L.Bygotsky;
- Dialog of cultures of V.Bibler.

Semantic, grammar and logic of the natural language;

Semantic, grammar and logic of the mathematical language;
Universalism of the mathematical language;
Mathematical language and inner speech;
School mathematical language;
Mathematical language acquisition;
Method of mathematic dialog (MMD).

Frame mathematical problem practical realization

of the method of mathematic dialog.


Selection criteria for the frame problems;

Cluster problems and their connection with the frame problem;
Selection criteria for the cluster problems;
Quantitative assessment of the problems complexity.

Research questions

Is Mathematics at least particularly a language in the linguistic sense?


How does Mathematical language differ from a natural language?


Can Mathematical language be considered as increasingly complicative

hierarchy of logical structures?

4. What place in this hierarchy does occupy the school mathematical language?

Can inner speech be enriched by mathematical terminology ?


Does inner Mathematical speech exist?

7. What is a predicatively of inner Mathematical speech in Vigotsky sense?


Is it possible to unite Mathematical language acquisition and methods of

solution problems teaching?


Are there any criteria for selection the set of problems?

10. How to estimate the depth of understanding on the quantitative basis?