Want students to learn Math? Try Rock-Paper-Scissors (& not the game)

CJ Westerberg, May 19, 2013 4:01 PM


"Other researchers at the University of Virginia center
have found executive function, fine-motor skills,
and general knowledge in kindergarten
are better predictors of 8th grade reading and math achievement
than early-literacy skills.

-Education Week, Children's Spatial Skills Seen as Key to Math Learning
The Connection between Spatial Skills & Math Learning

Combine the importance of pre-school and early education with the explosion of technological learning tools for this age group and you'll understand why the Edweek article, Children's Spatial Skills Seen as Key to Math Learning, holds a deeper resonance than one's first impression.

Preschools and kindergartens long have taught children "task skills," such as cutting paper and coloring inside the lines. But new research suggests the spatial and fine-motor skills learned in kindergarten and preschool not only prepare students to write their mathematics homework neatly, but also prime them to learn math and abstract reasoning.

Claire E. Cameron, a research scientist at the University of Virginia's Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning illustrates how visual-motor and fine-motor tasks are clearly executive functions:

Put yourself in the mind of a 4- or 5-year-old, and copying a shape on the blackboard onto a piece of paper is a much more cognitively complex task than it is for an adult: Understanding the design, then holding that shape in your mind and deciding how to start copying, requires working memory, one of the brain's executive functions. Gripping the pencil properly, applying the right pressure to avoid tearing the paper,and keeping the paper oriented on the desk all need fine-motor skills that also, at such ages, require focus and self-control.

"Children learning to write have not automated these skills," Ms. Cameron said. "Even sitting up straight so you can face the paper can be difficult."

As a side note, I thought about how does new technology play into this equation?  If you think about it, a student can "copy" a shape onto an iPad or other new technology form by using a finger or stylus which mimics the experience and skill demand of pencil to paper -  or does it?  The difference becomes quite explicit, however, with other tasks requiring fine-motor skills such as cutting paper with scissors, the care and focus needed to prevent paper tearing and modeling clay, all examples mentioned in this article (bold emphasis added by editor).

To further study the concept of "copying patterns", researchers at the University of Virginia tested and assessed pre-schoolers and kindergarteners in a study called Mind in Motion.
Immediately below are the original illustrations shown to students given the task to "copy":    

teacher-spatial-executive-function.Edweek.jpgStudents' Interpretations showing quite the range of ability. Here is the clincher: students were the same age without known disabilities but clearly at "different levels of development in executive-function and fine-motor skills":
student-spatial.Edweek.jpgSOURCE: Claire E. Cameron

In addition to other studies (see quote at top of this post), there is research led by David Grissmer from the University of Virginia who found that "1st graders who had attended high-poverty preschools often had never built with construction paper, blocks, or modeling clay" attributing this lack of foundational skills as a contributor to the black-white achievement gap.

In addition, another recent study pulled fascinating results:

As part of a $1 million pilot project supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Mr. Grissmer and his team worked with after-school programs at three high-poverty, high-minority elementary schools in Charleston, S.C.
For 45 minutes a day, four days a week, for seven months in fall 2010 and spring 2011, groups of five to seven kindergartners and 1st graders played games that required them to copy designs and shapes. At the start of each class, the pupils took part in "calirobics" - handwriting and line-tracing exercises set to music. During the rest of the class they copied a pattern or picture in a variety of materials. Some days, students cut and pasted construction paper to make chains or built models out of clay or Lego blocks; other days, they used stencils, pattern blocks, or fusible plastic beads.

The children were not taught any math, and the teachers did not draw any links between the art projects and math skills, but by spring the1st graders  . . . .
click here to find out and read full article.

Arts education, STEAM and not STEM, the importance of visual learning, physical activity,
The Maker Movement - are key levers for learning, most especially at this critical developmental stage:

The development of fine-motor coordination and executive function may be more critical than subject content for early-childhood classrooms, Mr. Grissmer said.
"We start kids too early on math and reading when they don't have these foundational skills," he said. In the earliest grades, he said, "you can't just teach reading and math to get higher reading and math skills."

Edward Scissorhands anyone?    - C.J. Westerberg

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