Seeing the world through math-colored glasses

Spirit-Fire, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
Spirit-Fire, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

The students were searching all over the classroom, trying to find the answer to a question posed by their teacher. The question was simple, the problem-solving straightforward, and the answer must be somewhere nearby; but nobody knew where, neither teacher nor student. The question: “What’s something in the classroom that is roughly twice my height?”

This question may not seem to have much to do with mathematics. But encouraging students (and teachers) to explore their everyday surroundings may be key to unlocking students’ capacity to understand math. The goal of such questions is to inspire more students to view their world through mathematical lenses. We now know that some children put on these metaphorical “mathematical glasses” more often than other children do, and this helps them succeed in learning math. But why is that?

“Encouraging students to explore their everyday surroundings may be key to unlocking students’ capacity to understand math.”

A central objective of research into the development of children’s math skills is to reduce gaps in attainment. Much of this work focuses on the various cognitive, affective, and contextual factors that play a role in a child’s success in the math classroom. Recent research has sought to determine whether certain math-related activities in children’s everyday lives give them an advantage in learning math.

Mathematics educators and educational psychologists have recently begun to focus more attention on how self-guided mathematical behavior influences children’s development. This field has expanded rapidly in recent years – throughout Europe and North America and into South America and Oceania. It appears that some children, more than others, have a tendency to recognize and use mathematical features in everyday situations, even without explicit guidance. This tendency is referred to as spontaneous mathematical focusing.

Such children achieve better learning outcomes than their peers, even up to six years after pre-school. The results hold even after we take into account a multitude of potential confounding variables, such as nonverbal intelligence or overall mathematical achievement. Most importantly, it does not appear that these children’s better outcomes are due simply to stronger mathematical skills. Instead, it is hypothesized that they are driven by more self-initiated practice with mathematics, both in and outside the classroom.

This brings us back to the initial scenario in which students are searching for an object that is twice as tall as the teacher. Explicitly promoting such spontaneous focusing has led to long-term gains in early numerical skills. But, is it possible to also impact older children’s mathematical behaviors? Preliminary evidence suggests it’s possible. However, by late primary school, students have already come to view math as something that is doled out in small portions during the allotted hour, which makes it more difficult to change their perceptions of mathematical behavior.

“Some children, more than others, have a tendency to recognize and use mathematical features in everyday situations, even without explicit guidance.”

As educators, researchers, and policy makers, we should be encouraging students to take off their blinders to the mathematics all around them, and to start seeing the world through math-colored glasses. This would allow more students to succeed in the math classroom.

Cognitive Science Society

The mission of the Cognitive Science Society is to promote Cognitive Science as a discipline, and to foster scientific interchange among researchers in various areas of study, including Artificial Intelligence, Linguistics, Anthropology, Psychology, Neuroscience, Philosophy, and Education.

The 41st Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society will be held in Montreal, Canada on July 24th – July 27th, 2019. This year’s conference highlights research on the theme, Creativity + Cognition + Computation, in addition to the full breadth and diversity of research topics offered by the society’s membership. More information at cognitivesciencesociety.org.

EARLI 2019

The European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction (EARLI) is an international networking organisation for junior and senior researchers in education. Representing over 2000 members in more than 60 countries, EARLI is the biggest educational association in Europe.

In times of constant change, the future is a moving target – difficult to predict and prepare for. Yet, education is doing just that. At the 18th Biennial EARLI Conference and the accompanying 23rd Conference of the Junior Researchers of EARLI, researchers in learning and instruction from all over the world come together to discuss current research findings. In order to think tomorrow’s education and education research, it is crucial to relate new findings to what we already know and elaborate how this will help foster sustainable learning processes and navigate what is yet to come. EARLI 2019 will take place in Aachen, Germany, from August 12th to 16th, 2019. More information at EARLI.org

Weekly newsletter