Insights from the School of Education and Social Policy at Merrimack College

Math skills provide a foundation upon which students can build their academic future. Understanding basic math concepts and how to apply them early in their education prepares children to excel as they move into higher grades.

However, many do not learn these basic math skills. It’s a problem that teacher organizations and researchers have said needs addressing. While advocates continue to push policymakers to support plans that enable better math education at a young age, teachers can better prepare their own classrooms by earning a Masters of Education degree that focuses on the best strategies for educating young students.

Early Exposure to Math

Research has shown that what a child learns in their first six years has an important impact on their educational experiences going forward, according to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM).

The NCTM, in a position paper, writes that an ”engaging and encouraging climate for children’s early encounters with mathematics” will support development of more confidence for the students in their ability to understand and use math.

It also goes beyond just helping students in math. The NCTM writes that positive math experiences for children help them to better develop curiosity, imagination, flexibility, inventiveness and persistence. These areas “contribute to their future success in and out of school.”

Math Memorization Not the Answer

For many students “learning math” can mean “memorizing math.” Some never move beyond memorizing math skills such as the multiplication tables or formulas needed to get through a timed test. However, memorization is overrated, according to some experts. The paper “Fluency Without Fear” from researchers at Stanford University reported that MRI scans showed few differences in the brain activity of those who were good and those who did poorly on math memorization while they did math problems. Doing math from memory only lit up the hippocampus, the working memory center of the brain.

That led researchers “to believe that there are no differences in math ability, analytical thought, or IQ between the groups,” according to the paper. The paper also noted that since working memory can shut down during times of high stress, it makes it harder for students who use math memorization to recall facts under pressure. They found high-achieving and female students were impacted the most in this area.

What Can Teachers Do to Help Students in Math?

The NCTM and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) issued a joint position paper on the issue of teaching math at any early age. They specifically focused on what teachers of students between the ages of three and six can do.

The paper goes over many of the issues that have led to the current situation, including a lack of focus on providing early math education to students by policy makers.

For teachers of young children, the NCTM and NAEYC offered many areas where improvements can be made, including the following.

  • Enhancing students’ interest in math and using it to make sense of their physical and social worlds
  • Building on children’s experience and knowledge, including their family, linguistic, cultural, and community backgrounds; their individual approaches to learning; and their informal knowledge
  • Using curriculum and teaching practices that strengthen children’s problem-solving and reasoning processes as well as representing, communicating, and connecting mathematical ideas
  • Ensuring that the curriculum is coherent and compatible with known relationships and sequences of important mathematical ideas
  • Providing for children’s deep and sustained interaction with key mathematical ideas

Clearly, experts agree that teaching student’s math skills while they are young is an important step in enhancing their academic development. For those entering a graduate degree program in early childhood education, it’s certain to be a focus of your education and training for teaching positions in this critical time of a young person’s education.