A Stanford professor says counting on your fingers is “critical” to understanding math

Using your fingers to count has long been the scourge of math teachers. But a new research paper published online by Stanford University’s mathematics education research initiative, youcubed, dispels the notion that finger-counting isn’t for smart kids.

In the paper, professor of mathematics education Jo Boaler cites studies from a branch of neuroscience that focuses on the part of the brain dedicated to the perception and representation of fingers (known as the somatosensory finger area). She argues that visual cues and pathways in the brain are key to the teaching and understanding of math.

Drawing on a 2015 study, Boaler and her colleagues say that we in fact “‘see’ a representation of our fingers in our brains, even when we do not use fingers in a calculation.” In the study, researchers found that, for 39 eight- to 13-year-olds figuring out complex subtractions, the somatosensory finger area “lit up,” even though the students were not actually using their fingers to do the sums.

In a separate study of 47 six-year-old pupils, researchers found that participants’ arithmetic knowledge increased once they had been trained on how to differentiate between their fingers.

So important is finger perception that it “could even be the reason that pianists, and other musicians, often display higher mathematical understanding than people who don’t learn a musical instrument,” Boaler suggests.

While the sample sizes in the studies cited are relatively small, Boaler warns that discouraging students from using their fingers to count is essentially a way of halting their mathematical development. “Fingers are probably our most useful visual aid, critical to mathematical understanding, and brain development, that endures well into adulthood,” she writes. (We’ve contacted Professor Boaler for comment.)

For Boaler, developing more visual approaches to teaching math in schools has so far been a series of missed opportunities. The topic has been presented “as a subject of numbers and symbols, ignoring the potential of visual mathematics for transforming students’ mathematical experiences and developing important brain pathways,” she says.

“[When] students are weak memorizers or number-users, but produce strong visual ideas and representations, they are often referred to special education classes,” Boaler writes. “This could be the reason that some of our greatest scientists—Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison for example—were written off by teachers and even labeled as ‘stupid’.”

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