Early math can’t be just ‘exposure’

Math doesn’t have to be boring, opines the New York Times.  The editorial recommends ”very early exposure to numbers,” better teacher prep, better integration of engineering and “real-world” connections, opines the New York Times.

The Times shows a striking naiveté, responds cognitive scientist Dan Willingham.  To start with, exposing kids to numbers in preschool won’t help.

Math is not learned like a language. Children can learn vocabulary and more complex syntax by mere exposure. They can’t learn math that way.

Early learning is important, he writes. American kids tend to be  ”okay (not great) on math facts and okay (not great) on algorithms. On conceptual understanding, they are terrible.”

This conceptual understanding ought to start in preschool with ideas like cardinality and equality. “Very early exposure to numbers” is not going to do it. That doesn’t mean taking what we had been doing in first grade and asking kids in pre-K to do it. That means putting activities into pre-K (e.g., games and puzzles that emphasize the use of space) that will provide a foundation for conceptual understanding so that first-graders will be in a better position to understand what they are doing. (Though first grade math will also have to change for that happen.)

In calling for “better teacher preparation,” the Times focuses on high school.  Getting more physics majors to teach high school physics isn’t the main problem, Willingham writes.

Most American teachers—like most American adults, including me–don’t have a deep conceptual understanding of math. They are a product of the system we are trying to change. You cannot teach what you don’t know.

We need “to train teachers in the conceptual side of math” so they can help children understand how math works, Willingham writes.

Why am I blogging when I’m supposed to be in Iceland? Because I left my purse on a shuttle bus from the rental car center to the terminal at Logan Airport. Many people tried to help,but it took more than five hours to track down the purse at the MassPort bus dispatcher’s office. My passport, cash, credit cards,cell phone, etc. were all there. Conclusion: Bostonians are nice people. I am stupid.

We’re trying again this evening.

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