Innoculating against innumeracy

For years parents have been told how important it is to read to their young children. Today I read that it may be just as important to do household math with young children. An article in the Wall Street Journal reports that

Math skill at kindergarten entry is an even stronger predictor of later school achievement than reading skills or the ability to pay attention, according to a 2007 study in the journal Developmental Psychology.

My first thought was surprise. How could math be even more important than reading? My next thought was that now conscientious parents will feel pressured to improve their children’s math skills prior to age 5.

While walking the dog (an excellent time to reflect on things, except when she’s trying to chase motorcycles, bicycles, or pedestrians), however, I thought of an alternative explanation for the finding in that study. Parents have been working at improving their young children’s reading skills since before I started school (in 1967). But most of them have probably not put nearly as much effort into math skills (especially since, as the article points out, many parents suffer from math-phobia).

Those children who start kindergarten with strong math skills, therefore, probably are those with the highest natural aptitude for math (and perhaps academics in general) or whose parents are particularly dedicated to taking advantage of every opportunity to help educate their children. It’s not that they’re going to do well in school because they have strong math skills so much as they already have strong math skills (for kindergarteners) because they have the innate and/or family resources that are important to scholastic success.

That’s not to say that doing the kind of numbers-related activities mentioned in the article won’t help. I’m sure they will. The more that parents can incorporate learning of all kinds into daily life with their children, the better off the children are – both academically and in terms of strong family relationships. I just wouldn’t want parents of today’s kindergarteners worried that their children are already marked for lower scholastic achievement because they didn’t develop better math skills yet.

Back when my older son was a baby, I bought a book with all sorts of practical ideas for teaching everything from colors and shapes to basic math skills. Some of them sounded like excellent ideas – but they also sounded like quite a bit of work. I was working full-time, plus going to school evenings to get my MBA. By the time Zach was a preschooler, my husband was going to seminary full-time and working part-time.

Getting meals cooked was enough of a challenge without feeling obligated to find ways for Zach to help me (so that he could have experience using measuring cups, for instance). If he could sit on the kitchen floor and enjoy playing with plastic toys in his mini sandbox (a plastic storage bin), instead of trying to steal the dog’s food or complain because I wasn’t paying enough attention to him, I felt I was doing pretty well. Maybe he would even pick up some basic math-related concepts about the relative size of different containers – but he’d have to do it without my pointing it out to him.

He may, of course, have been one of those children who was going to do well in school without much help. (To whatever extent intelligence is inherited, he got it from both sides of the family.) He rarely asked for help with math homework – or any other subject – and graduated at the top of his high school class.

Our younger son struggled to learn his basic arithmetic facts, and counted on his fingers long after it seemed he should have been able to do it in his head. At the time I thought it was due to his autism, and the difficulties people with autism sometimes have with short-term memory. But he eventually not only reached grade level in math, he was put in the talented-and-gifted program for math (as well as for other subjects).

I think now that his problem in the early grades was not so much the math itself as the time limits imposed. Given enough time, he could always come up with the right answers, but the students were given timed tests on their math facts, and time limits seem to cause his mind to freeze up – regarding math or anything else. (One of the accommodations made for him in his IEP is allowing him extra time to finish tests.)

My only problem with math in school was that I thought it was boring. My father was an actuary, like his father before him, but I couldn’t imagine anything as dull as sitting at a desk all day doing math problems. Easy, I thought, but totally uninteresting – kind of like working on an assembly line but manipulating numbers instead of physical objects.

Telling my sons that math was boring, however, would probably have been little better than telling them it was terribly difficult. (I can tell them that now because they’re old enough to have formed their own opinions about the subject. And I do tell them that I enjoyed geometry. Perhaps it’s because geometry is visual and I’ve always preferred visual-based learning.)

The problem with innumeracy is real, however. There’s a whole website about it here. One article tells about ways to make very big (or very small) numbers more meaningful. On a lighter note, just try and make sense of the numbers in this one!

Not having had to struggle with math-phobia myself or in my sons, I can’t say anything from personal experience about overcoming it. But I’m sure it doesn’t need to be a barrier to students’ success. (That doesn’t mean there may not be some students with genuine problems understanding the concepts. But that’s a matter of aptitude, not attitude.)

But I hope math-phobic parents (or future parents) reading the WSJ article will find help in its suggestions – and not worry too much about just how many math skills their children can demonstrate at age 5.

2 Responses to Innoculating against innumeracy

  1. modestypress says:

    It’s tricky. We want children to develop as much knowledge and competence as they can. But some children are talented in one area; some are talented in another. Some children are interested in one area; some are interested in others. How much to push them? How much to hold them back. Some people want to be parents. Others do it by accident. It’s too easy to do, given how overmotivated we are in the area of sex.

    Whether it was God (as you believe) or an accident of evolution (as I believe), we need to settle down a bit.

  2. Isabelle says:

    Yeah, I agree. I also don’t love math when I was studying. Let’s face it, sometimes it is boring and it is hard to learn. Great post.

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