Let’s talk about preschool maths: It’s not as easy as 1, 2, 3

Recognising the importance of ongoing collaboration between researchers and educators
tanyepm, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0
tanyepm, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0

Research has shown that maths skills at the beginning of schooling are a strong predictor of later achievement. However, while maths is considered a core subject in mainstream education, there is considerable variability in how different maths skills and concepts are introduced before the start of formal education. This variability may depend on practitioners’ expertise and attitudes towards early maths teaching.

As part of a large Oxford-based project investigating predictive factors of pre-school maths development, I had the opportunity to visit over 200 3 and 4-year-old children attending informal education and care settings before entering school.

It became clear to me from interactions with practitioners that any lack of emphasis on early maths is not due to insufficient enthusiasm or effort, but rather to uncertainty on how best to facilitate the development of maths skills. Most practitioners acknowledged having never received maths-specific training as Early Years educators, although they are required to achieve a minimum standard in their own maths education.

“Any lack of emphasis on early maths is not due to insufficient enthusiasm or effort, but rather to uncertainty on how best to facilitate the development of maths skills.”

When considering preschool-level maths ability, the primary focus tends to be on numerical skills like counting, or recognising numerals. The most striking feedback we received from practitioners was that, aside from periodically doing specific ‘maths activities’ with children, wider maths development receives less attention than areas like writing and phonics. Our initial observations showed that most activities across settings (~73%) involved counting language.

By contrast, more conceptual maths language like place value (decomposing larger numbers into constituent tens and ones) was observed in only ~2% of activities. This type of language is critical in developing a deeper understanding of numbers, which is important for carrying out more complex calculations.

During the project, the researchers worked one-to-one with each child playing many different maths games, such as feeding a monkey puppet the correct number of bananas; choosing one of two pictures with the most items and pointing to the larger of two numbers on a page. As these games demonstrated, there’s more to maths than counting.

A practitioner participating in our project remarked that by observing the different games we played with children, “We learned a lot about our children’s mathematical development, in ways we wouldn’t have thought of”. For a researcher, how a single child deals with different number tasks is obviously interesting, but for a practitioner it can illuminate underlying misunderstandings, and it is helpful to address them at this early stage.

“Seeing situations from another professional’s perspective can provide valuable new insight into your own work.”

Demonstrating the breadth of mathematically relevant skills invited participating practitioners to think creatively in designing similar games for helping children learn about specific areas of maths. For example, one practitioner seemed keen to adapt the monkey puppet game into a tool for developing simple calculation skills by asking the child to feed the monkey “2 more”.

Many practitioners also explained that having ‘maths researchers’ in the environment made them more likely to use maths-talk in everyday activities, recognising wider opportunities for maths language outside of maths-specific tasks.

The experience from this project has underscored the importance of ongoing collaboration between researchers and educators. The symbiotic relationship between them is beneficial for both sides, and it encourages individuals to learn new approaches. Seeing situations from another professional’s perspective can provide valuable new insight into your own work. As a pre-school manager succinctly put it, in response to my question of whether she would seek involvement in more research in the future, “It’s win-win, we can only learn more”.

The purpose of the biannual IMBES Conference is to facilitate cross-cultural collaborations in biology, education and the cognitive and developmental sciences. Our objectives are to improve the state of knowledge in and dialogue between education, biology, and the developmental and cognitive sciences; create and develop resources for scientists, practitioners, public policy makers, and the public; and create and identify useful information, research directions, and promising educational practices. The 2018 conference took place in Los Angeles, California.

The author of this blog post, Megan von Spreckelsen, was among the presenters at the conference.

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