Jie-Qi Chen, Ph.D.
Erikson’s senior vice president for Academic Affairs, dean of faculty, and founder of the Early Math Collaborative, explains why everyone needs to know math.
Math was one of my favorite school subjects. I had many good teachers in my formative years. Math to me was interesting and logically beautiful. I helped form a study group in high school to assist my classmates with their math homework, which furthered my understanding of the math problem.
I was trained as a generalist in child development, focusing on cognitive development and assessment. As the field of teacher education changed, content knowledge became more and more important so I chose math as a specialty.
The research on math surprises people. Longitudinal research says that early math predicts later school performance more so than reading. Early math also predicts high school retention and graduation and is connected to adult employability and wages. The benefits go beyond schooling.
When [Erikson founder] Barbara Bowman was chief early childhood education officer for the Chicago Public Schools, she asked me to help survey preschool teachers. I chose to focus the survey on math and the results were telling. Almost all of the 300 teachers said they wanted professional development in math and many of them weren’t confident in their abilities to teach math.
We were very lucky to receive a grant from the CME Group Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation to launch Erikson’s Early Math Collaborative in 2007. We are focused on what we call the “Big Ideas” or foundational concepts of math. We help teachers understand what to teach as well as whom to teach and how to teach. Practice is individualized. We have coaches to work with teachers since every classroom is different and every student is different.
We developed and use the whole teacher approach in our professional development, which is analogous to the whole child approach. The whole teacher approach emphasizes the development of teachers’ knowledge, attitudes, and practice.
You can start math as early as infancy. For example, routine or pattern is critical to the healthy development of infants. There is a certain time you eat and there is a certain time you sleep. Pattern is a foundational math concept. You are born using and experiencing mathematics. From very early on, math is a part of the fabric of our life.
Everyone needs to know math. Math is a language of computational thinking and logical reasoning. It offers a tool for young children to think about, see, and understand the world in new ways. Math is everywhere around us. For example, you even need math to describe a room—the shape of the window, the size or the temperature of the room.
Parents can teach their kids math, even if they had a bad experience with it in the past. Get your children involved in daily routines. You can teach measurement with cooking and you can teach patterns with sorting laundry. When you walk, you can count. You can ask, “How many steps do you think it will take to get to the end of the block?” Think in terms of big concepts when working with your children—counting, shapes, measurements, and patterns.
Fifty years ago, we didn’t believe children could think abstractly. Now we know that children have an enormous ability as long as we are teaching them in the appropriate way.