A Stanford professor says we should teach more math in preschool

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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 thinking for 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).

Stipek is promoting the teaching of math early through Development and Research in Early Math Education, a group affiliated with Stanford that creates math programs for preschools. She is quick to note that, like literacy, math should be taught through playful instruction with young children. In the same way we sing to children, act out stories, and read to children to help build a love for language and storytelling, we can make math playful. Teachers can design classes with a goal (sorting), and play (sort toys) which can be evaluated (how well the kids understand sorting).

“The mathematical ideas that young children are working on are the critical foundations to later mathematics,” says Megan Franke, a professor of education at UCLA. “Their work on sorting is the beginning of grouping, which leads to understanding multiplication/division and then slope.” These are areas, she says, where kids are competent and interested, providing ample opportunities for teachers.

The idea that three-year-olds should be doing math is not universally welcome. Many educators are critical of the move to push more academic standards into kindergarten, arguing it is not developmentally appropriate to ask small children to do so much. In a paper entitled “Is Kindergarten the new first grade?” Daphna Bassok, an assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia, noted that in 1998, only 30% of teachers believed that children should learn to read while in kindergarten, a figure which rose to 80% in 2001. Peter Gray, a psychologist, thinks that part of the reason kids are more anxious and depressed today is largely due to fewer “opportunities for free play and the increased time and weight given to schooling.”

Stipek says it isn’t zero-sum: kids can learn more math and still have ample room for play. It requires deliberate planning, and weaving the two together. This investment is worth it, because there is a huge and stubborn achievement gap—there’s a year of knowledge at the start of kindergarten between low and high income kids—that persists throughout school.

In the 1980s, researchers observed a 32 million-word gap between high and low-income kids who were observed in their homes for three years. There’s a gap in math, too, and preschool may be the place to try and close it.

What it looks like

This is how Stipek describes “playful instruction” in a recent issue of Young Children:

Marylou [a preschool teacher] has drawn a 6 x 10 grid on a shower curtain spread on the floor. She asks the children to sort the shoes into six piles, according to certain attributes they have agreed on—sandals, slip-ons, shoes with laces, etc. Then, in the bottom row of the grid, they place one shoe from each pile in its own square, followed by the rest of the shoes from that pile, one each in the squares above the first shoe.

After the children count the number of shoes category with a letter (L for laces, etc.). Under each column they write the total number of shoes in that category and continue the discussion: What kind of shoes did most children wear to school today? How many more Velcro shoes would they need for the Velcro column to be the same height as the slip-on column? For the children, this activity was a game. For Marylou, it was serious business. In this one lesson she had the children engaged in multiple components of the math curriculum—categorization, basic number skills (counting, one-to- one correspondence, cardinality, writing numbers), graphing, and measurement.