8 Common Myths about Early Math Learning (in honor of Math Awareness Month, April 2013)

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Native Brain has been excited to participate in the annual April observance of Math Awareness Month (MAM) by raising awareness about the importance of Number Sense for all children. MAM is sponsored by the Joint Policy Board for Mathematics (JPBM), which has selected “Mathematics of Sustainability” as the theme for MAM 2013.

Humanity is continually challenged to manage an increasingly complex and technological world.  The advance of science and technology creates many opportunities – from novel entertainments to new forms of community to longer lives.  But the rapid pace of technological advance also creates many new challenges, including emerging issues related to energy, health care, agriculture, economics, and environmental sustainability.  People are used to thinking about the scientists, engineers, and policymakers who manage these opportunities and challenges today.  But what about the future – where will tomorrow’s mathematicians, scientists, and engineers come from?  Today’s children, of course.  But the reality is that societies currently are not preparing enough children or young adults who are proficient in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subjects to meet the ever-growing demand.

In honor of Math Awareness Month, Native Brain would like to invite everyone to reflect for a moment on some common misconceptions about elementary mathematics learning, which is the gateway to STEM success (both individual and societal).

Myth #1: “If a child doesn’t get the basics of math in elementary school, they can always catch up later.”  Unfortunately, this does not seem to be true.  Researchers recently reported on a study, for example, in which they followed children from kindergarten through seventh grade.  The ones who struggled most in seventh grade were the same ones who had struggled in kindergarten.  The gap doesn’t just go away – if anything, it tends to widen over time.

Myth #2: “Early math is just ‘messing about’ – it doesn’t get serious until later (middle school, high school, college).”  Not so.  Even more than in other subjects, mathematics knowledge is cumulative.  It is impossible to understand algebra without first understanding arithmetic, for example.  And the most basic foundation for all formal learning of mathematics is number sense.  Children who have a well-developed number sense when they arrive at kindergarten tend to succeed in math; children without it are in danger of falling progressively further behind.  Math is serious right from the start.

Myth #3: “Most children arrive at kindergarten with the basics they need to progress in math.”   While it’s true that some children do show up in school with a solid understanding of number, many also do not.  In fact, the variability in children’s mathematical knowledge when they first come to school is huge – some children, for example, haven’t learned by six years old what others knew at three.  Even those students who seem to know a lot about number – those who can count, for example – don’t always have all of the number knowledge they need to succeed.  Many are simply performing by rote, without understanding what counting actually means.

Myth #4: “There’s nothing to learn in preschool math, really – just memorizing the number names and the sequence of counting numbers.”  If only this were true!  Cognitive scientists who study children’s development of number sense have identified dozens of individual concepts and skills that preschool children need to master as preparation for success in mathematics.  These concepts and skills cannot all be learned independently of each other, either – they form an intricate “number knowledge network” with lots of interconnections between them.  Counting with understanding, to take just one example, involves a progression of at least five distinct conceptual achievements on the way to mastery, and has connections to nearly every other concept in the network.

Myth #5:Kids will generally pick up the math they need through unstructured play – puzzles, games, and songs with a math theme, for example.” This may surprise many people, but research has demonstrated that children do not learn what they need to know about number as a side effect of free play activities with a math theme, such as puzzles, blocks, or songs.  Reliably developing the conceptual foundations of number sense requires explicit and intentional focus on the number concepts and their formal relationships.

Myth #6: “There are ‘math people’ and ‘non-math people’ – you are either born with it or you aren’t.”  This misconception is both false and damaging. Cognitive scientists working in public school classrooms demonstrated back as early as the 1990’s that they could take virtually any kindergarten child – even those most at risk for failing in math – and reliably put them at the top of the class.  They demonstrated, in short, that every child has the potential to succeed in math…as long as we teach it in a way that gives every child a chance to understand it.

Myth #7: “There are plenty of ‘math people’ out there who will take care of that kind of work.”  World leaders, analysts, and policymakers disagree.  There is a shortage of qualified mathematicians, scientists, and engineers and the situation is becoming more acute over time.  If something doesn’t change, these people project the shortage could lead to severe economic and national security crises in the coming years.

Myth #8: “We don’t know how to teach math to young children.”  This erroneous claim was repeated in a popular article on number sense just last week.  The fact is, we do know how to develop a solid number sense foundation for virtually any child.  We’ve known how to do that since at least the 1990’s.  While it’s true that for decades technological limitations prevented us from delivering that learning at scale to every child, recent advances in technology (like the iPad) have made it possible to overcome this final hurdle.  Want proof?  Download Native Numbers!

Every journey begins with a single step.  In STEM, the first step for all children is mastering number sense.  Native Numbers is the first and only comprehensive, evidence-based number sense curriculum available in the App Store.  And in the spirit of Math Awareness Month, we invite you to download the Lite version for free and help inspire a love of math for the children in your life.  Also, help us spread the word!

About Math Awareness Month and JPBM

Mathematics Awareness Month, held each year in April, was created to increase public understanding of and appreciation for mathematics. It began in 1986, when President Reagan issued a proclamation establishing National Mathematics Awareness Week. Activities for Mathematics Awareness Month generally are organized on local, state and regional levels by college and university departments, institutional public information offices, student groups, and related associations and interest groups.

The JPBM is a collaborative effort of the American Mathematical Society (AMS), the American Statistical Association (ASA), the Mathematical Association of America (MAA), and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM).

About Native Brain

Native Brain, Inc. produces evidence-based math curricula that adapt to the unique capabilities and needs of each learner in real-time. 

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