Beyond Counting: Encouraging Preschool Teachers to Help Young Children Think Math

Many may think preschool is too young to learn any “real math.” Not so, according to the National Science Foundation, the Allegheny Intermediate Unit (AIU), and the Fred Rogers Company.

The three are teaming up to provide hands-on professional development to Head Start teachers using the new PBS Fred Rogers Company show Peg + CAT.

Early childhood experts say high-quality and challenging math education for 3- to 6-year-olds can build on kids’ natural inclination to explore, tinker, and ask questions. And, research shows math knowledge in prekindergarten is actually the highest predictor of later academic success.

Exposing children to STEM concepts in early childhood teaches them to have confidence in STEM fields and helps them fight harmful notions that often prevent children from pursuing their science- and math-based interests. “Girls aren’t’ good at math,” for example.

“The earlier you catch them, the better off they are,” Claire Caine, an elementary school technology instructor told Lisa Guernsey in the New York Times. In her classroom, Caine has been testing out ScratchJr, a new programming language designed for kindergarten students. “The idea that they might not be good at something hasn’t entered their mind yet,” she said.

[one_third][blockquote]The Early Learning of Math through Media project is designed to increase early childhood educators’ confidence and efficacy in teaching math. [/blockquote][/one_third][two_third_last]

Yet preschool teachers, like many of us, may not feel confident in their ability to teach conceptual math and may not feel comfortable integrating math concepts into their classrooms in ways that go beyond simple counting.

That’s where the Early Learning of Math through Media project comes in, which is partially designed to increase early childhood educators’ confidence and efficacy in teaching mathematics.

The project uses Peg + Cat episodes as a platform to illustrate both age-appropriate math content (e.g., sorting, counting, patterns, and data) and to teach that anyone can love to learn math. Like the show, which is about a young girl—Peg—and her sidekick—Cat—who solve problems, the professional development sessions have important overarching messages: “math is everywhere;” “all people can learn mathematics;” and “math learning begins early in life and should be both supported and encouraged.”[/two_third_last]

“It’s a great platform to build deeper understanding and confidence among these early educators,” Nancy Bunt, the program director for the AIU’s Math and Science Collaborative, wrote in an email. The teachers engaged in math activities and observed videos of children learning. They discussed how to recognize developing stages in learning trajectories of key math concepts, as well as what questions and activities can help to support growth and understanding.

It’s also important to improve math instruction in the United States. Michael Teitelbaum, author of “Falling Behind? Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent,” recently told an audience at the Brookings Institution that one reason for the shortage of STEM workers today (and why we’re importing talent from abroad) is because of the “mediocre K−12 system and declining student interest.” Only the elite public and private schools, he said, excel in math and science instruction, adding to the rising inequality among schools, and in life. Florida Governor Rick Scott is so worried about falling behind that he wants to offer teachers summer internships at high-tech companies like Modernizing Medicine in Boca Raton, paid for by the state.

“They’ll come here and work for the summer and they’ll go back and inspire their students,” he said.

In July, the first group of Head Start educators in Allegheny County began the training, which will take place for two years—with some educators attending in the summer and some during the school year. The program will eventually be training all of the Head Start teachers in Allegheny County, which includes 42 school districts in addition to the Pittsburgh Public Schools. Themes include the different ways people learn, the nature of high-level tasks, and formative assessment of students.

Teachers were introduced to several pieces of the Common Core State Standards, including the importance of the nature of student and teacher discourse, the value of multiple representations, and the key role of collaboration.

The new instructional approach in Common Core math is getting nationwide attention from comedians and policymakers for its more conceptual aims.

As Motoko Rich wrote in the New York Times last month, the new math “seeks to help children understand and use it as a problem-solving tool instead of teaching them merely to repeat formulas over and over. They are also being asked to apply concepts to real-life situations and explain their reasoning.

This is partly because employers are increasingly asking for workers who can think critically and partly because traditional ways of teaching math have yielded lackluster results.”

Innovative projects like Early Learning of Math through Media hope that getting early educators helping kids think mathematically from an early age can help.

A family engagement component trains teachers on how to encourage families to teach math at home and will offer take-home math activities. The program is being evaluated by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh. They will be measuring whether participating educators learned new math or extended their existing knowledge of math, whether they increased their confidence in math, how well the project worked with families, and whether using media along with professional development enabled teachers to enhance kids’ interests in math.

Published August 18, 2014