11 January 2010

Teaching Math to Preschoolers

My grandmother sent me a New York Times clipping this week about preschool math education based on cognitive neuroscience. I know, sending cut out pieces of newsprint through the mail, how quaint. Yet somehow comforting. Maybe I'm biased, but I just love the smell and feel of newsprint. Unfortunately my selfish sensory desires won't save the trees. Or the newspaper industry. Or journalistic integrity. Sigh.

Anyhow, as I was saying before I got distracted. The article, entitled "Studying Young Minds, and How to Teach Them," profiles a math curriculum at the Stanley M. Makowski Early Childhood Center in Buffalo. Above the headline, three adorable four-year-olds in matching green sweatshirts organize the numbers 1-5 printed on sets of green cards. Reporter Benedict Carey (per the byline) describes a program called Building Blocks, which makes no assumptions about at what age children are "wired" to learn certain concepts. This whole idea flies in the face of the traditional Piagetian stages of development. It also seems to lean toward what has traditionally been associated with behaviorism: in particular drills, drills drills. But the drills are not designed to help children memorize multiplication tables. Instead they are designed to encourage certain connections in the brain. Very cognitive science. For example, the teacher shows the children a paper plate with three dots on it, and then covers it quickly. She wants the students to be able to recognize the number three without counting. In my opinion this reeks of associationism (which fits neatly into behaviorism). But it's definitely not traditional associationism. Instead of training children to produce the correct responses to a very narrow set of questions, Building Blocks is training children to think about numbers and patterns in a certain way, which will allow them to think about questions in a better way, and formulate mathematically accurate responses. Very constructivist in this light. Building Blocks is also said to incorporate games, play and artwork into the math curriculum. Very Vygotsky. The curriculum, although clearly based on the vocabulary of cognitive neuroscience, appears to incorporate smart methodologies from the whole gamut of learning theories.

According to the article, the method has been extremely successful, as measured by tests of simple arithmetic skills (addition, subtraction, and number recognition). After participation in Building Blocks, children scored on average 26 percentile points higher than their non-Building Blocks peers (the test was graded on a curve, so do the math).

If nothing else, stories like this one make me happy that people are rethinking teaching math. Math is a lovely thing, and should not be reserved for graduate students. Of course, these preschoolers are not creating proofs, but it sounds like some of what they do without ever touching a pencil to paper is a lot closer to real math than what can go on in the classrooms of children twice their age. Despite highly public complaints that we are falling behind in math and science education, we are getting better, and programs like this one prove that it is possible to bring untraditional programs into the classroom. Hope for the future! Woohoo!
Here's the link, in case your grandmother doesn't send you clippings.

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