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NY Times: Young Kids Can Learn Math

December 26, 2009

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Brain research changing the way math is taught to younger children

08:47 AM CST on Monday, December 21, 2009

Benedict Carey, The New York Times

For much of the last century, educators and many scientists believed that children could not learn math at all before the age of 5, that their brains simply were not ready.

But recent research has turned that assumption on its head – that, and a host of other conventional wisdom about geometry, reading, language and self-control in class.

The findings, mostly from a branch of research called cognitive neuroscience, are helping to clarify when young brains are best able to grasp fundamental concepts.

In one recent study, for instance, researchers found that most entering preschoolers could perform rudimentary division, by distributing candies among two or three play animals. In another, scientists found that the brain’s ability to link letter combinations with sounds may not be fully developed until age 11 – much later than many have assumed.

The teaching of basic academic skills, until now largely the realm of tradition and guesswork, is giving way to approaches based on cognitive science. In several cities, including Boston, Washington and Nashville, schools have been experimenting with new curriculums to improve math skills in preschoolers. In others, teachers have used techniques developed by brain scientists to help children overcome dyslexia.

And schools in about a dozen states have begun to use a program intended to accelerate the development of young students’ frontal lobes, improving self-control in class.

“Teaching is an ancient craft, and yet we really have had no idea how it affected the developing brain,” said Kurt Fischer, director of the Mind, Brain and Education program at Harvard. “Well, that is beginning to change, and for the first time we are seeing the fields of brain science and education work together.”

This relationship is new and still awkward, experts say, and there is more hyperbole than evidence surrounding many “brain-based” commercial products on the market.

But there are others, including an early math program taught in Buffalo schools, that have a track record. If these and similar efforts find traction in schools, experts say, they could transform teaching from the bottom up – giving the ancient craft a modern scientific compass.

In a typical preschool class, children do very little math. They may practice counting, and occasionally look at books about numbers, but that is about it. Many classes devote mere minutes a day to math instruction or no time at all, recent studies have found – far less than most children can handle, and not nearly enough to prepare those who, deprived of math-related games at home, quickly fall behind in kindergarten.

“Once that happens, it can be very hard to catch up,” said Julie Sarama, a researcher in the graduate school of education at the University at Buffalo who, with her colleague and husband, Doug Clements, a professor in the same department, developed a program called Building Blocks to enrich early math education.

“They decide they’re no good at math – ‘I’m not a math person,’ they say – and pretty soon the school agrees, the parents agree,” Clements said.

“Everyone agrees.”

In a Building Blocks classroom, numbers are in artwork, on computer games and in lessons, sharing equal time with letters. On a recent Wednesday afternoon at the Makowski center, Buffalo’s Public School 99, Pat Andzel asked her preschool class a question:

“How many did you count?”

She had drilled them on the number seven. Held up a sign with “7” and asked her students what number they saw (“seven!”); had the group jump seven times, counting; then touch their nose seven times. As the class finished counting seven objects on a poster, she asked again:

“How many?”

“I never used to ask that,” Andzel said in an interview after the lesson. She asks it all the time now, she said, because it drives home a subtle but crucial idea: that the last number they said in counting is the quantity; it is the answer.

“Many of these kids don’t understand that yet,” she said.

The curriculum includes a variety of math-based lessons, activities, as well as software programs, all drawing on findings from cognitive science. When it comes to understanding numbers, for example, recent research suggests that infants can distinguish one object from two, and two from three.

By preschool, the brain can handle larger numbers and is struggling to link three crucial concepts: physical quantities (seven marbles, 7 inches) with abstract digit symbols (“7”), with the corresponding number words – “seven.” Lessons such as the one Andzel taught are meant to fuse this numeric trinity, which is crucial for understanding basic math in kindergarten.

Children begin recognizing geometric shapes as early as 18 months, studies find; by preschool, the brain can begin to grasp informal geometric definitions.

In all, the Building Blocks curriculum and others link numbers to objects, to rhythms, to the chairs and plates around a table: to the physical world.

“If children have games and activities that demonstrate the relationship between numbers, then quantity becomes a physical experience,” said Sharon Griffin, a psychologist at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., who found in a series of careful studies that a curriculum she devised, called Number Worlds, raised the scores of children who lagged in math. “Counting, by contrast, is very abstract.”

In a study published last year, scientists at Carnegie Mellon University reported that playing what seems a simple childhood game, similar to Chutes and Ladders, accelerates the understanding of numbers for low-income preschoolers.

“Being told 8 is 2 times 4 is one thing,” said Robert Siegler, a psychologist who is one of the authors. “It’s another see that it’s twice as far to the number 8, and that it takes twice as long to get there.”

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