This Is How the Latest Research Could Revolutionize How We Teach Math

Mathematics teaching has changed significantly in recent years. Digital tools for teaching mathematics emphasize problem solving, game playing, and hands-on learning. Also, collaboration and critical thinking have gained importance. Now, the latest research in mathematics education could further revolutionize the way we teach math to children . . .  by having them use their fingers.

What the Research Shows

Several recent research studies have combined neuroscience with the teaching of mathematics. The researchers conducting these studies want to know how the brain works while learning mathematics. That way, they can propose new teaching methods

that align with the way our brains learn.

Researchers at Northwestern University studied the area of the brain that recognizes the fingers (the somatosensory finger area) and observed that brains access that area when solving mathematical equations. Researchers typically determine a child’s finger perception by touching their finger—after making sure the child can’t see their fingers—and asking them to identify which finger was touched. 

In the study, researchers used an fMRI scanner to study the brain activity of students aged 8-13. They were asked to perform complex subtraction and multiplication tasks. The resulting brain scans were analyzed to determine that the somatosensory finger area was being used to solve these problems, even though the subjects weren’t using their fingers.

Another study performed by researchers affiliated with several Canadian universities asked first graders (ages 5-7) several questions to measure their skills in counting, ordering, sequencing, recognizing numerals, and place value. The results showed that stronger perceptions of fingers and numerical representation were a better predictor of calculation skills than many arithmetic tests.

Further, a pair of researchers out of Belgium learned that training young students to recognize their fingers and use them for tasks also improved their abilities with numbers. In this research, first-graders were divided into three groups: one group, comprising students who had high scores in numerical knowledge, received no special instruction, while the other two groups, comprised of students with lower scores in numerical knowledge, received two different types of instruction (one group received instruction in story comprehension, and the other instruction in finger knowledge). The group with instruction in finger knowledge showed gains over the group with instruction in story comprehension when it came to numerical knowledge.

All of these studies suggest a link between finger knowledge and mathematics ability. These studies have led to recommendations that schools teach finger knowledge and also encourage counting on fingers. This could revolutionize the long-standing prohibition against using fingers in math class.

Using Fingers and Other Visuals

Professor of mathematics at Stanford University Jo Baeler and her team have developed teaching resources based on the research about fingers and mathematics. These resources are located on the website youcubed, which the research team developed to bring new knowledge about mathematics education to teachers and students around the world. Their primary motivation in developing this website was promoting equity and diversity in mathematics. In particular, they hope to increase the numbers of girls and underrepresented minorities who study mathematics beyond high school.

The youcubed researchers have developed online teacher preparation courses, an online student course, and other resources. Some of these resources include activities focused on developing finger knowledge as well as mathematical knowledge. For example, in finger maze activities, students put different colored stickers on their fingers. Then, they trace colored lines one at a time with the corresponding fingers on both hands.

Furthermore, many of the resources on youcubed feature visual activities for learning math. This is because the youcubed team sees a connection between the research about finger knowledge, mathematical knowledge, and visual learning. As they explain it, when students use their fingers for doing math, not only are they using knowledge of their fingers, but they are also using sight to process the information from their fingers.

One example of a visual learning activity provided on youcubed is the border problem activity. Students are shown a 10-by-10 grid with its outer squares colored in and are tasked with determining how many total squares are colored without counting them one at a time. This activity helps to develop algebraic skills.

Impacts on Learning

Early results show that visual learning in mathematics can have positive results. After introducing middle school students to a mathematics curriculum based on growth mindset and visual learning principles, the youcubed researchers noted a 50 percent improvement in algebra scores. The researchers say this equates to an improvement of almost three grade levels. It is difficult to determine whether the growth mindset aspects or the visual learning aspects of the curriculum were responsible, so more testing is needed.

The youcubed initiative has had a broad reach. Its website boasts more than 38 million visitors and counting. In addition, subscribers from more than 140 countries and half of all schools in the United States use its ideas. Overall, 230 million students have been impacted by youcubed’s materials.