Dear Dr. Debbie,
I have a second grader and a fourth grader starting back to school this week. I am dreading the homework sessions, particularly math for my older child. How important are those repetitive assignments that have her using the same facts over and over? In first grade it was addition and subtraction, in third grade we had multiplication and division facts until numbers were coming out of our ears. It bored her and me both to tears.
Don’t miss last week’s column How children’s play has changed — Good Parenting
Dear Enough Already,
As with other accomplishments for a developing child, the path to mathematical mastery follows a typical route. Math learning starts with concrete experiences — playing with sets of objects to master such concepts as greater than and less than, all and none. The more a child re-experiences the same play — lining up toy cars and counting them to see that, once again, she has a total of 5 hot rod cars and 5 emergency vehicles and 10 all together — the stronger the neural network for this particular math idea in her brain becomes. Over time, generally by early elementary school, math facts are easier to retrieve from memory and she no longer has to count objects or fingers to “know” the answer. “Five plus five is 10” is now quickly applied without having to count fingers. She can leap right to the answer.
Dr. Kathy Mann Koepke of the National Institutes of Health reports on research about the progression of the ability to calculate math problems in both children and in adults. Brain scientists looked at which areas of the brain were involved over a six month period for a group of children, and for a group of adults. The area of the brain involved with pondering through a problem — the frontal cortex — is more active the younger the brain or when a task for an adult is new. When a math fact is learned or stored in long term memory the process of calculating goes much faster. Instead of solving the problem with the frontal cortex, the hippocampus is the area of the brain involved with memory retrieval. The correct answer is almost like a reflex. The more the neural pathway has been used to retrieve a particular fact, the less thought is needed to come up with it.
The hammering in of math facts through repetition has long been a staple of early elementary school. Seemingly endless worksheets will ask for the same answers to the same math questions. Flash cards were developed to add visual blasts of input to the brain as it works to recognize the right answer to the same set of equations, over and over. And it works. In the same way that a child struggles to simultaneously keep his balance and maneuver pedals to induce forward motion on a bicycle, the more we do anything, including information retrieval, the easier it can get. Until one day, it’s effortless.
Start the new school year off with setting some good patterns for homework time. Make it fun! Sit in a different chair for every third problem. Combine math homework with the after school snack and work out at least one of the problems with food. Start with the last problem and go backwards. Add a visual memory route and an auditory route to the brain by closing your eyes and saying the equation you just solved out loud. And before you know it, getting the worksheets out of the way will be just as automatic as knowing that five plus five equals 10.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at [email protected]