Learning Without Borders

Every year, around this time, I receive calls and emails from parents about helping their children. Often the calls are requesting help in math or reading to “catch up” because their child is behind. As I was looking through some old notes, I came across one of the sadder calls from just a few years ago. The mom of a 2nd grader wanted to know if I could help her daughter catch up. I learned that she especially had difficulty with the timed math facts tests. And, horrors of horror, the little girl was still using her fingers to do the 100 single-digit problems on the page 🙁

Her teacher had been reprimanding her for this and now she was hiding her fingers in her pockets. The mom was desperate to know how fast I could help her do math without using her fingers. I told her that, in my experience, kids stopped using manipulatives, including fingers, when they didn’t need the concrete materials. So, it wasn’t a practice I encouraged because it resulted in swiss cheese learning. Kids would memorize a math fact, remember it one day, and then forget the same one on another — a frustrating experience for everyone!

Although I did mention that there was a great deal of brain research that was refuting this outmoded notion, she wasn’t convinced. She had heard good things about my work with children to make learning enjoyable. So she was disappointed that I didn’t have strategies in my hip pocket that didn’t involve using manipulatives, including fingers.

This conversation brought back a flood of memories for me. I vividly recalled seeing nuns use their rulers on children’s fingers to discourage this practice in the early primary years, 50+ years ago. Fortunately, there were so many kids in my class, so I was able to avoid this unfortunate experience personally by surreptitiously counting in my pockets without being observed. I was shocked to hear the “no using fingers” mantra was still alive and well today.

Several years ago, I took a math course from Jo Boaler, a mathematics professor at Stanford, about how to use brain research in teaching math. She had created an approach to learning math that applies visual thinking, numeracy, and growth mindset as foundational practices. Here’s what she has to say about using your fingers:

“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.”

To dive a bit deeper into understanding brain science and learn some practical responses if your children are being encouraged to give up this “babyish” habit, check out these resources:

For some fun activities to develop finger perceptions, check out the original article from The Atlantic:

Best wishes for more joyful math learning in 2020.

Why Kids Should Keep Using Their Fingers to do Math

Using Fingers to Count in Math Class Is Not ‘Babyish’

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