More Math in preschool?

A Stanford professor says we should teach more math in preschool

Palo Alto, California

Most parents do not have to be convinced that early literacy is important. Reading, singing, and talking to children before they can read themselves helps pave the way for curiosity, empathy and, hopefully, a lifelong love of reading.

But what about math? Deborah Stipek, a professor at Stanford and the former dean of the school of education, says math is just as important—if not more—to laying the foundations for educational success. But we are not nearly as focused on planting the seeds for a future love of math as we are for reading. “For a variety of reasons, people haven’t paid attention to math,” she says.

Research from 2007 found that math skills for kids entering kindergarten were a strong predictor of both math and reading skills in the third and fifth grades. Author Greg Duncan, a professor at the University of California Irvine, said it goes far deeper: Kids with persistent math problems are 13 percentage points less likely to complete high school than kids with no problems, and are 29 percentage points less likely to attend college.

“It’s intuitive you need to learn to read; even for math, you need to be able to read word problems,” Stipek says. “It’s not intuitive that math lays a foundation for learning.”

But it does. Plenty of research, including from the National Research Council underscores the importance of early mathematical thinkingfor developing cognitive abilities later in life.

“Math predicts reading; reading does not predict math. We don’t know why,”

Stipek says. “There’s logic, it’s highly correlated with executive functions, it may help to develop attention skills,” she adds, noting that this is “total conjecture.”

Stipek thinks there are a few reasons that math has not gotten the same attention as literacy in early childhood programs (3% of time at preschool, compared with 10% for literacy and 60% for meal/nap/transition, according to an analysis of one school). Preschool teachers tend to avoid math, she says: “In fact, most of them don’t like math; or they don’t necessarily see themselves as successful at math.”

For their part, parents know how to read to children, and have ample books to help. It’s not the same for math. “I know how to read a book to my child,” she says. “How do you do math with a three year-old?” In math, more than in literacy, there is a general belief that some people are good at it and some people are not. Carol Dweck, another Stanford professor, has shown how toxic this “fixed” mindset can be: Kids who think their math intelligence (or any intelligence) is fixed struggle to improve as much as those who think ability is linked to effort.

Others have noticed the gap too. Laura Overdeck, who has a degree in astrophysics and an MBA, used to weave math into bedtime stories for her kids. “If we talked about ninjas or giraffes at dinner, then the math story that night would be about ninjas or giraffes,” she told the Hechinger report. When her second kid came along, he wanted math problems at bedtime too. Friends started asking her to email the problems to them and soon the Bedtime Math empire was born: books, an app, and a foundation. Independent research has shown that kids who used the app gained three months’ worth of extra math achievement after one school year compared with kids who got literacy questions instead (the study skewed toward more affluent families, however).

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