Math Education: Start Early, Start Now

Because a high number of parents report feeling intimidated by math concepts we can assume that uncertainty and unease translates into a failure to routinely discuss math skills and concepts with their own young children.  Even parents not steeped in the technical details of reading comprehension and literacy development often spend time reading with their children; and informal literacy activities, e.g. asking a young child to sound out a word, look at an illustration for context clues, or pick their favorite book are a regular part of many parent’s nightly routines.  So it’s not surprising that math discussions and activities often get left behind.  As this recent article by Annie Paul makes clear, failure to introduce young minds to mathematical concepts at an early age can have serious impact on the student’s readiness to learn math skills later in life:

But speaking to them about numbers, fractions, and decimals? Not so much. And yet studies show that “number talk” at home is a key predictor of young children’s achievement in math once they get to school. Now a new study provides evidence that gender is part of the equation: Parents speak to their daughters about numbers far less than their sons…

The frequency of number talk in the children’s homes had a big impact on how well the youngsters understood basic mathematical concepts such as the cardinal number principle, which holds that the last number reached when counting a set of objects determines the size of the set (“One, two,
three—three apples in the bowl!”). A subsequent study by Levine found that the kind of number talk that most strongly predicted later knowledge of numbers involved counting or labeling sets of objects that are right there in front of parent and child–especially large sets, containing between four and ten objects.

Paul goes on to offer a set of helpful suggestions for introducing ‘number-talk’ early on in a child’s development and urges that parents attempt to incorporate number talk at least as often as they talk about words and letters:

  • Note numbers on signs when you’re walking or driving with children: speed limits and exit numbers, building addresses, sale prices in store windows.
  • Ask children to count how many toys they’re playing with, how many books they’ve pulled out to read, or how many pieces of food are on their plate.
  • Use numbers when you refer to time, dates, and temperatures: how many hours and minutes until bedtime, how many weeks and days until a holiday, the high and low the weatherman predicts for that day.
  • With older children, math can become a part of talking about sports, science, history, video games, or whatever else they’re interested in.

We couldn’t agree more.  Mathematics has received far less attention than literacy at both school and at home.  It’s our hope that parents will recognize the importance of numeracy and that lessons that important must start at home.

Pushing Through to the Top

Interesting take over at Scholastic Math Hub on what the common core portends for the publishing world.  Hung-Hsi Wu, a math professor at UC-Berkeley, has argued that the common core offers a unique opportunity to publishers – the opportunity to recreate far more effective mathematics textbooks, textbooks which capture which capture the depth and richness of the new standards.  Specifically, Wu is hoping for textbooks that capture the inter-relatedness of all math content:

Preparing to teach proper school mathematics is not about learning a craft, but, rather, a discipline that is cognitively complex and hierarchical.  Each topic, no matter how basic, is essential to some future topic.

Wu’s right.  And the interconnectedness of each strand is well illustrated by the Quantile Framework, which not only places student and task difficulty on the same scale, but also provides the prerequisite skills for each and every math skill and concept.  We share Wu’s hope that the common core will provide the impetus for richer and more comprehensive math textbooks.

Math Doesn’t Suck

If you’ve been struggling to find strategies to motivate  teens, and especially young girls, to stick with math, check out these books by Danica McKellar:

McKellar is best known for her television role as Winnie Cooper in The Wonder Years, but she has added New York Times best-selling author to her resume with the publication of her books about math.  McKellar attended UCLA where she graduated summa cum laude in mathematics in 1998 and has made it her mission to show girls that they can succeed in math—that it is OK, and even cool to be good at math.  Through her books and her personal life as an actress and mathematician, McKellar hopes to break the stereotypes that have “trained girls from a young age to believe that math is too hard, too boring and just for boys, and that if they are smart, they can’t be popular or beautiful.” 

The real-world examples of how mathematics can be applied to various aspects of our lives helps make the math McKellar discusses relevant to teens. A few chapter titles from Math Doesn’t Suck provide a glimpse into why McKellar’s books are so appealing:

  • How Many Iced Lattes Can These Actors Drink?: Multiplying and Dividing Fractions… and Reciprocals
  • How Much Do You and Your Best Friend Have in Common?: Common Denominators… and Adding and Subtracting Fractions 
  • Sale of the Century!: Converting Percents to and from Decimals and Fractions

Her clear explanations of mathematical concepts make these books easy to understand.  Fans range from those who struggle with math to those who just want fun examples of how math concepts can be applied to various topics.

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