By the time many kids get to second grade they're already wondering whether they'll ever be "good at math." Yet researchers at the University of Michigan say all kids understand a lot more math than adults usually give them credit for. Last week they published results suggesting that children are capable of learning and understanding basic mathematical concepts and operations at a much earlier age than previously thought.

Does this mean 5 year olds can do calculus? Not quite. But it does suggest states could step up math instruction for preschoolers — and offers further proof that well-designed pre-K programs serve a much more important educational function than simply providing free day care for busy parents. Helping children develop a stronger sense for numbers early on could even reduce the embarrassing gap in mathematical ability between U.S. students and their foreign peers that international standardized tests have revealed.

The recent study by the Michigan researchers found that children as young as 3 can understand the meaning and value of multi-digit numbers and manipulate simple mathematical concepts. The finding was surprising because it contradicted decades of previous research based on the assumption that very young children do not have the capacity to fully understand place values or to add and subtract multi-digit numbers, both of which are crucial prerequisites for learning higher order math.

Maryland may be ahead of the curve in seeking to make the new view of children's mathematical abilities part of its early education curriculum. State Superintendent Lillian Lowery is urging educators to take into account the new research indicating that not only can very young children can grasp basic principles of counting, sorting and sequencing numbers, they're also capable of recognizing geometrical relationships and performing some mathematical operations.

Now that the state is moving to adopt the more rigorous math and reading requirements to meet the new Common Core standards, Ms. Lowery wants to incorporate the new findings regarding childhood brain development into Maryland's early education curriculum as quickly as possible, starting in child care centers, Head Start programs and other early childhood learning centers. She says it's past time teachers freed themselves from preconceived notions of what children can or can't accomplish because all the evidence points to even very young children being ready to absorb far more instruction in higher-level, critical thinking than the state's schools have been delivering up to now.

As a result, educators are looking to expand the tools they use to assess the math skills of students in preschool. For example, Ms. Lowery wants all pre-schoolers to be able to count to at least 20, be able to put numbered cards on a table in sequence and to know how to perform simple operations regarding quantities, such as adding and subtracting blocks. Schools have long used blocks and other objects children can hold in their hands to help them understand the concept of numbers. Surprisingly, the latest research suggests that can also learn as fast or faster from manipulating abstract quantities such as numerals. One of the more fascinating ideas to come out of the University of Michigan study was that for some reason children found it easier to manipulate Roman numerals than their Arabic counterparts.

Ms. Lowery also believes even very young children can be taught how to sort and classify various objects using numbers — for example, how many students are wearing hats or something red today? Likewise, the curriculum needs to address children's capacity to recognize geometrical shapes and properties — not just whether something is a triangle or a square but also why one is fundamentally different from the other. For instance, if a teacher puts three triangles on a table and two are oriented one way while the third is differently, the child has to understand that all three are nevertheless still triangles.

All children come to school with different degrees of development and ability. But Maryland's approach is based on the principle that its always better to accelerate their instruction than wait for everyone to reach the same developmental level before moving on. It turns out that accelerated instruction benefits even those who are less developmentally ready because the faster students help them catch up.

Poor children often come to school with underdeveloped language skills and smaller vocabularies than their middle-class peers; some studies have suggested that poor children hear fewer than half as many words spoken at home during their first five years as children from more affluent families.

But almost all children are continually exposed to multi-digit numbers, which they hear from adults in the form of phone numbers, calendar dates, street addresses, bus routes and the like. It turns out they're constantly processing that information and as a result develop a surprising familiarity with numbers long before they arrive at school. It's the job of early childhood educators to build on those experiences so kids develop the solid skills they will need to expand their knowledge later on, and Maryland's children need to start that process as early as possible in quality kindergarten and pre-K programs.


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