Series: About Early Math

In Response to “The Wrong Way to Teach Math”

In his recently published article, “The Wrong Way to Teach Math” (February 28), Andrew Hacker does a beautiful job making clear some of the ridiculousness of our current national mathematics educational system. His suggestion that we make “quantitative literacy” a goal for all students is a sensible one with broad implications for enhanced equity and social justice.

I take great issue, however, with the idea that “we teach arithmetic quite well in early grades,” and the notion that all we need is middle school coursework in quantitative literacy. Such thinking neglects the root of the problem, which is the largely inadequate math education we now provide during a child’s early years.

Throughout this country, early elementary teachers, for the most part, teach math the way it was taught to them. This instruction emphasizes a procedural approach—do this and get the right answer—as opposed to a conceptual one—understand the problem and apply tools thoughtfully. Students are left with rigid math rules and “tricks” rather than a belief that they can make sense of a problem and flexibly use their knowledge to solve it. As this limited approach fails them, it generates a form of learned “math helplessness” and the conviction that they cannot “do math.” We can do better.

Through our work preparing early childhood teachers and researching teaching and learning, the Early Math Collaborative at the Erikson Institute in Chicago focuses on a simple but powerful idea: To stop creating a preponderance of students who are certain they are not and never will be “good at math,” we must fundamentally transform how math is taught in the early years.

With support, the educators of our youngest children can help them become mathematical thinkers, to go from just “doing arithmetic” to thoughtfully and confidently applying mathematics throughout their lives. What we need is greater awareness of the importance of this national problem, and the will to transform our approach to teaching early and elementary mathematics to address it.