By Emily Cairns

06 August 2015 - 04:06

'Young children understand the concept of symmetry from building towers with building blocks.' Photo (c) Raúl Hernández González, licensed under CC-BY-2.0, adapted from the original.
'Young children understand the concept of symmetry from building towers with building blocks.' Photo ©

Raúl Hernández González, licensed under CC-BY-2.0, adapted from the original.

How important is a child's mindset when learning maths? Emily Cairns, a UK student working for JUMP Math in Toronto as part of an international work-study exchange programme, explains.

Even though children are born with a natural curiosity for learning, this is not the same as being born with an ability to do maths. No child comes into the world immediately able to do long division and complex multiplication. But can we assume that all children, with the exception of those with significant learning disabilities, are born with the ability to learn maths?

Research shows that preschool-aged children develop abilities in early childhood that can be defined as basic maths skills. For example, young children understand the concept of symmetry from building towers with building blocks; they can divide a snack equally between friends. Even children as young as six months can distinguish between two pictures, one with ten spots and the other with 20, demonstrating an understanding of comparative amounts.

In fact, studies have found that children are more open to learning at a young age (five or six), and by successfully teaching the fundamentals of maths at this stage in their lives, children find it easier to develop further maths skills in later life.

So why don't all children learn maths? Indeed, why do many face significant barriers in this area of education? If the skill and curiosity are innate, perhaps the explanation lies in the environment, or with the adults supporting the child.

In order to teach children maths, teachers must be maths-literate. If teachers are confident in what they are teaching, children are more likely to learn. It has been said that the most effective way of teaching is teaching individual concepts in detail, so that children understand the concepts instead of just learning them by rote. This means that children are able to use algorithms in multiple ways rather than just in the ways they've been taught. However, if the teachers themselves faced barriers to their learning in this subject, they won’t instil in children the confidence they need to demonstrate ability in this area.

A child’s mindset contributes heavily to his or her overall educational outcomes. Children who have a ‘growth mindset’ believe intelligence can be developed. They are more likely to do well than children with a ‘fixed mindset’, who believe their ability is fixed while others may be able to achieve.

The development of these mindsets happens over time and comes from experience. If you face problems you can’t solve on a regular basis, with teachers or parents who don’t expect you to succeed, you are likely to assume that you have no ability in that area. When this applies to maths problems, you start to believe that this is not the subject for you.

In 2003, researchers ran a workshop that taught seventh-grade students they had the capacity to learn and develop new skills. The students were told that their brains were muscles: every time they learned a new technique, they ‘stretched’ their brain, making it easier to learn new information in the future. As a result of participating in the workshop, the children believed they could learn new skills with practice and effort. This shows that a growth mindset can be learned and that a certain teaching style can transform students who previously thought they couldn't do maths into ones who can.

A programme that developed maths ability, as well as developing children’s belief in their own maths ability, would therefore be very powerful. This is a combination that can be found in the JUMP Math programme, which not only teaches students basic maths, but also teaches teachers, so that they become confident in their own maths skills, and able to support students in their development.

The programme is based on teaching in small steps, and giving feedback to children in a way that helps them improve rather than makes them feel disappointed in themselves when they make a mistake.

Results from using this programme show great leaps in children’s maths abilities. In a study conducted in a Toronto school, one teacher raised her class average by 30 per cent in the course of a year.

So, going back to the original question – is every child capable of learning maths? – the answer is more complex than a simple 'yes' or 'no'. But given the right environment, encouragement and method of teaching, children are able to build on their natural curiosity for learning, and develop skills and enjoyment in maths, giving them greater potential for better outcomes in later life.

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