I have just returned from the 2017 National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. More than 6,000 early care and education (ECE) teachers for 0-8 year olds convened at the Georgia Congress Convention Center. My colleague Aileen Rizo and I were honored to represent the AIMS Center for Math and Science Education.
I am a math convert. I have been in ECE for more than 25 years, but only the last two and a half years have been as a research associate for early mathematics. I am eager to share what I have learned in that two and a half years with the rest of the ECE community. For instance, they need to know that currently less than 5 minutes per week is spent on intentional math instruction in most ECE programs. Math manipulatives or counters are available on the shelves or put out on the table to be explored, but very little inquiry or guided instruction actually occurs. Teachers need to know that children are twice as likely to be reading by third grade if early mathematics is introduced in conjunction with early literacy prior to the first day of kindergarten. Parents and teachers need to know that early mathematics is more than reciting the number word sequence from 1-20; it also involves problem solving, spatial relationships, concepts of more, less, equal, before, after, longer, and shorter. More importantly, learning occurs most successfully through play and not by memorization.
Our session was from noon to 3:00 pm on the first day of the conference. My initial thought on learning of our presentation time was, “Great, who wants to come to a math presentation at lunchtime?” Aileen and I began setting up at 11:15. A few participants came in at 11:30 to save their seats. At 11:45, enthusiastic teachers began filling up the seats. By noon all the seats were taken, and by 12:15 we had people sitting along the east, south, and west walls. Aileen and I were beaming at seeing the full-house attendance.
The teachers were engaged in learning about what the research says about the importance of early mathematics and ideas about promoting mathematical play. Over the course of our presentation, we had them make patterns with musical instruments, 3 dimensional shapes, and showed them how finger patterns and counting can be learned anytime, both in program and at home.
We have discovered that ECE teachers do not have the same affinity to teach math as they do to teach literacy. This may be attributed to negative experiences in their own math education, not doing well in a class, finding math difficult, or lack of confidence in their math abilities. This translated to them not having the same passion to teach early mathematics or utilizing mathematics vocabulary.
The conference keynote speaker, Steve Pemberton, stated, “The first picture is not the only picture.” This was in reference to Pemberton’s abusive childhood, which he eventually overcame to attend college, eventually becoming an executive with monster.com and Walgreens.
If you had a negative experience with math growing up, that is your first picture, but it is not the only picture. If you have a challenging student, that is his/her first picture, but it is not the only picture. If you had a challenging day with the students, that is your first picture, but it is not the only picture. Be the next picture by making a positive difference in a child’s life and “do the math.”