Not Just a Buzzword

Overloaded with educational buzzwords? Ever hear the newest trendy catchphrase and say, “Oh yeah, that sounds good.” Meanwhile, in the back of your mind, you’re thinking, “What does this even mean?”

Here’s one I’ve used: “We need to provide students with rich mathematical experiences.”

When we hear this at a conference or in a meeting, all heads nod vigorously. It’s hard to disagree with. Who really thinks, “Nope. What we really need are more unimaginative, tedious math experiences”?

Let’s just say that we agree with the “rich mathematical experiences” approach. That sound good! But what does that actually mean to us and our students?

But then, very recently, the term “rich mathematical experiences” suddenly came to life for me.

Dr. Les Steffe, a childhood mathematics research legend from the University of Georgia, recently visited us here at the AIMS Center. One thing he said really caught my attention. He said that “rich visual and sensorimotor experiences” create memorable material for children to reflect upon as they abstract number. As I thought about his statement, I began to think about how random words and numbers bring about vivid memories from my past. For example:

“Sun” – Someone burned a hole in a teammate’s baseball glove by holding a magnifying glass between it and the sun. That’s just wrong.

“Swamp” – My childhood elementary school’s mascot was the Swamprat. I still think it is the best mascot ever. Great school!

“Four” – As we set the table for dinner, Dad used to say, “Four forks for the family.” Good times.

Want to try? Since we are talking about number, let’s begin with me showing you a number. Take a moment to see what memories this brings to the surface for you.

So what memories were connected to the number 11 for you? Players on the field of a football or soccer team? Veteran’s Day (11/11)? Someone’s birthday? The number on your Little League jersey? September 11? The memories that the number 11 bring forth for you are most likely based on some “rich” experiences.

Likewise, as children construct the abstract concept of number, they need rich, memorable counting experiences. So what do those experiences look like and why do they need them?

If we think about sight, touch, hearing, smell, and taste, we can create activities that appeal to as many of the senses as possible.

Dr. Steffe also alluded to what has become an important area of education research: emotion. Emotion plays a prominent role in memory. What emotions were elicited for you in the above exercise? How did you feel? It is commonly said that students may forget what we do and say — but they remember how we made them feel.

As early childhood educators, our children will have a tremendous advantage if we can offer rich counting experiences as they construct the concept of number. As access to perceptual counting material is reduced, they will have vivid memories to count in their imaginations!

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