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Don't Stop Kids From Using Fingers to Learn Math
  • Photo from kidspot.com.au

    The debate (yes, there is one) on whether using fingers to solve math problems has been ongoing for years. Should you let them use their fingers? Would it serve them best in the long run? Isn't a little embarrassing to still use fingers to solve a math problem when you're a...grown-up?

    A 2014 study, Which Instructional Practice Most Help First-Grade Students With and Without Mathematics Difficulties?, headed by lead author Paul L. Morgan of The Pennsylvania State University, found that first-graders who are having difficulties in math may learn more if their teachers use the old-fashioned way of adding and subtracting.

    Another study published last year provided insights as to why using fingers in problem solving numbers helps. In analyzing how eight- to 13-year-olds solve complex subtraction problems, the area of the brain dedicated to the perception and representation of fingers lit up, even though the students did not use their fingers. According to study authors Ilaria Berteletti and James R. Booth, the somatosensory finger area of the brain was also significantly more engaged when solving more complex math problems.

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    Jo Boaler, a professor at the Stanford University's Graduate School of Education and CEO and cofounder of YouCubed, a company that provides math-education resources for students, parents, and teachers, wrote on The Atlantic: "Stopping students from using their fingers when they count could, according to the new brain research, be akin to halting their mathematical development. Fingers are probably one of our most useful visual aids, and the finger area of our brain is used well into adulthood. The need for and importance of finger perception could even be the reason that pianists and other musicians often display higher mathematical understanding than people who don’t learn a musical instrument.”


    These are not the only studies that have proven the effectiveness of using fingers to solve math problems. Yet despite the behavioral and neuroscientific data that backs it up, there is still, er, finger discrimination. “Teachers should celebrate and encourage finger use among younger learners and enable learners of any age to strengthen this brain capacity through finger counting and use,” Boaler advised.

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    Visual math is beneficial for all learners. “To engage students in productive visual thinking, [students] should be asked, at regular intervals, how they see mathematical ideas, and to draw what they see. They can be given activities with visual questions and they can be asked to provide visual solutions to questions.” Boaler suggests.

    Non-traditional methods of teaching math could supplement a child's learning, but sometimes the simplest way is the easiest. Also, practice is key. “Routine practice is the strongest educational practice that teachers can use in their classroom to promote achievement gains,” Morgan said. 

    What methods do you use to teach your kids math concepts? Share in the comments below.

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