Remaking Math Education for Young Children

Making math concepts click with students is more important today than ever before. We take a look at innovations in teaching mathematics for today’s younger learners.

Once, when I was in middle school, I was given a word problem with a series of equations about finding the number of turkeys on a farm. I remember raising my hand and asking my teacher, “What does this have to do with real life? Aside from Thanksgiving, when will I ever need to know anything about turkeys?” Like so many students, I could not see the practical application of the math I was being taught in school.

Making math and science concepts “click” with students is now more important than ever. The National Math + Science Initiative has found that only 45 percent of 2011 US high school graduates were ready for college-level math and only 30 percent were prepared in science. And experts say these skills are going to be even more crucial in the jobs of the future, where the ability to understand sophisticated concepts and innovate will be prized skills.

So today’s educators are finding new ways to help students forge these integral math connections at an earlier age.

Writing at KQED’s Mind/Shift, author Annie Murphy Paul says that one of the easiest ways to do this is through “number talk,” or casually speaking math with young learners. “Many of us feel completely comfortable talking about letters, words and sentences with our children—reading to them at night, helping them decode their own books, noting messages on street signs and billboards,” Paul writes. “But speaking to them about numbers, fractions, and decimals? Not so much.”

Paul says that talking math at home is a key predictor of students’ future achievement in math once they get to school. She also provides a few tips to help educators and parents integrate math language terms into everyday scenarios, such as asking kids to regularly count objects or to directly relate math concepts to their specific interests.

However, sometimes just talking numbers isn’t enough. Last week the New York Times reported on a new project funded by the National Science Foundation to develop and evaluate apps to help very young kids learn sophisticated mathematics concepts. Next Generation Preschool Math, or NextGen, is bringing software developers and designers from WGBH, the Boston public television station, into preschool classrooms to work with Researchers from Education Development Center (EDC) and SRI International to develop apps.

Mathematics expert and Columbia University professor Herbert P. Ginsburg told the Times the educational math apps currently on the market only provide a surface-level exploration of numbers.

Ginsberg said that math games often sound deceptively simple, but that many of these animated number games are actually based on a misunderstanding of what children need to know. “It’s not just ‘I can count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5,’ ” he said. “It’s ‘What does 5 mean?’”

In a post on the same project at the Fred Rogers Center, Vice President of EDC Shelley Pasnik says researchers are trying to understand “what happens to young children’s learning—specifically their math learning—when their preschool teachers have new interactive tools at their disposal.” She writes that skills like counting and one-to-one correspondence, or “bijective function” as mathematicians might call it, are important but aren’t nearly the “whole math story.” Skills like subitizing, where a student is able to identify the number of items in a set without having to count them, or equipartitioning, the ability to create equal shares of one item, are invaluable skills that can have a more obvious practical value to students.

“Despite what may be longstanding anxiety around math as a topic, otherwise unsuspecting adults engage in math thinking quite regularly,” writes Pasnik. “Although adults may commonly engage in equipartitioning activities, they often do so from a social angle, focusing on the concept of fairness. Calling attention to the mathiness of this concept can help kids’ later learning as it’s a precursor to understanding proportion and more sophisticated number reasoning concepts.”

Fortunately, innovative games that reinforce the kinds of cognitive math skills and sub-surface level concepts that Pasnik and Ginsberg were talking about are becoming a part of the landscape in some classrooms across the country.

Digital Toys for Math Literacy, for example, is a low-cost, kid-friendly object with embedded electronics designed by the Pittsburgh nonprofit Propel Schools. The device was developed in conjunction with Carnegie Mellon University and Sima Products, a partnership that Pop City writer Melissa Rayworth says combines technological innovation, nonprofit grant-giving, education, and the importance of family. “Consider the way that parents sit with children to read books, and how that shared reading experience leads to conversations that connect family members, foster learning and promote literacy. This project seeks to create that same dynamic around math,” she writes. “It’s such a perfect illustration of modern Pittsburgh.”

Whether it’s effective games or casual conversation, there are many ways to make math concepts more relatable and interesting to young learners. Hopefully, with these types of learning innovations, the “I hate math” mythos that abounds in school cafeterias and study halls will soon be a thing of the past.


Published September 10, 2013