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Counting the benefits of teaching math to 3-year-olds

September 6, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT
In Boston public schools, 3, 4 and 5-year-olds are getting their first introduction to math. Before they walk through the kindergarten door, the “Building Blocks” curriculum is designed to encourage very young children to think and talk about math concepts throughout the days, by providing lessons through innovative games. Special correspondent Cat Wise reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Students in Boston are heading back to the classroom this week, where the school district’s youngest learners are taking on math in a whole new way.

Special correspondent Cat Wise reports for our weekly education segment, Making the Grade.

WOMAN: Ready, go.

CHILDREN: One, two, three, four, five.

CAT WISE: The scene may look like indoor recess, but these preschool students are jumping joyfully for a lesson in mathematics.

WOMAN: Who’s getting warmed up now?

CAT WISE: Even the teachers in this Boston public elementary are warming up to the idea of math instruction for 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds.

WOMAN: Beautiful.

CAT WISE: Sara Gardner teaches pre-kindergarten at Edward Everett School.

SARA GARDNER, Teacher, Edward Everett School: The curriculum activities, they’re fun. They’re fun. And as a teacher, you really get to dig deeply into the development of math and math ideas in young kids.

CAT WISE: Boston schools have adopted a curriculum called Building Blocks, which encourages kids to think about and discuss math concepts throughout the day.

Linda Ruiz Davenport directs math programs for Boston Public Schools.

LINDA RUIZ DAVENPORT, Mathematics Director, Boston Public Schools: Getting young children involved in mathematics at an early age helps foster their curiosity about mathematics, particularly mathematics in their environment.

SARA GARDNER: All right, no skipping, count at one time. All right?

CAT WISE: Here, Gardner has students explain math mistakes by their puppet, Mr. Mix-Up.

SARA GARDNER: One, two, five, six, nine, 11.


CHILD: You did it wrong.

SARA GARDNER: I don’t understand what I did, though. I don’t understand.

CHILD: Like, you need to say, the correct words and correct names.

SARA GARDNER: Mr. Mix-Up, he is making counting errors, and so the children are trying to learn how to explain to him what those errors are as they’re building up their understanding of the number system.

CAT WISE: Building Blocks was designed by early learning experts who say math has been largely ignored in the United States, pushed out by literacy, a subject some refer to as the bully of preschool curriculum, because it dominates the day.

DOUG CLEMENTS, University of Denver: Research shows that kindergarten mostly is a mathematical wasteland right now for kids. In other words, kids knew that stuff before they walked into the kindergarten door. What are they learning? Almost nothing.

CAT WISE: Doug Clements is an early learning expert at the University of Denver and one of the creators of Building Blocks.

DOUG CLEMENTS: Early math is surprisingly important. What kids know in their preschool or entering kindergarten year about mathematics predicts their later school success. In mathematics, sure, that makes sense, but it even predicts later reading success, as well as early literacy skills do.

Early math is cognitively fundamental. It’s not just about number and shapes. There’s reasoning and thinking embedded in what we do in early mathematics that forms a foundation for years to come.

SARA GARDNER: All right, watch me. How many now?


SARA GARDNER: How do you know it’s five?

As they play this game, they become quicker and quicker at identifying quantity, and seeing quantity in different arrangements.

How many are here?


SARA GARDNER: Watch me. How many now?

CHILD: Seven.

SARA GARDNER: Watch me. How many now?

CHILD: Eight.

CAT WISE: University of Denver professor Julie Sarama is co-creator of Building Blocks. She’s also an expert in childhood learning and is married to Doug Clements.

JULIE SARAMA, University of Denver: Children love talking about mathematics. We go way beyond what’s the answer, to, how did you think about that, how did you get that answer, what were you thinking?

SARA GARDNER: How about these, Maurice? What are these? How do you know they’re rectangles?

CHILD: Because they have four sides.

SARA GARDNER: They have four sides, but what else?

CHILD: Right angles.

SARA GARDNER: Four right angles. Oh, my goodness. Give me a high-five.

CAT WISE: Comfortable as Sara Gardner is with her students, not all early education teachers embrace math.

JULIE SARAMA: You talk to them as adults, they will say, I never liked math, I’m not a math person.

CAT WISE: Susan Neuman, a professor of early literacy at New York University, advises teams of early education teacher-coaches. While the teacher she’s observing on this day get high marks for her style, Neuman describes visiting other classrooms where pre-K teachers have struggled to teach even basic math concepts.

SUSAN NEUMAN, New York University: The teacher actually said to the children, a triangle has three sizes, rather than three sides. And then the coach actually had to go to the blackboard and draw it, and show that it had three sides, rather than three sizes. Yet the teacher then repeated, it has three sizes.

CAT WISE: How important is the teacher’s own comfort level with math when they are teaching math to preschoolers?

SUSAN NEUMAN: It’s extraordinarily important. They have to feel comfortable, but they also have to like it. They have to understand things from an understanding of not only the topic itself, such as math, but how children learns about that topic.

CAT WISE: That was apparent at this professional development class sponsored by Boston Public Schools, where pre-K teacher Stephanie Kudria-Shova was learning how to teach the Building Blocks curriculum.

What is your own relationship with math? How do you view math?

STEPHANIE KUDRIA-SHOVA, Teacher, Boston Public Schools: Honestly, I hate math. My instructors would say, Stephanie, don’t say that.

I have been working really hard not to be math-phobic, and coming to workshops like Building Blocks has helped me as an adult.

CAT WISE: Do you think back on your own childhood, and your own education about math, and think, gosh, I wish I had learned this?

STEPHANIE KUDRIA-SHOVA: I wish all the time. And, today, you know, I actually at one point started getting nervous, and sweating, because they gave us something to do, and I was like, oh, no.

CAT WISE: You often hear about fads in education. School districts will be rah-rah, spend a lot of money implementing these curriculums, and then they fade out, for whatever reason. Is that a possibility here?

DOUG CLEMENTS: Yes, it’s true, curriculum come and go. Well, we have got to get away from jumping on the bandwagon, and then jumping on a new bandwagon.

Curriculum may go, but the understandings, the scientific research based understanding of how kids learn and how you can best support that learning should stay.

CAT WISE: Education experts are now waiting for new research, expected later this year, on the lasting impacts of early math instruction.

In Boston, I’m Cat Wise for the “PBS NewsHour.”