Tuesday, December 22, 2009

fingers and math

I have been reading a book by Nancy Krasa and Sara Shunkwiler, Number Sense and Number Nonsense, Understanding the Challenges of Learning Math which explores the difficulties and impairments that some children face in learning math. One thing it points out is the importance of counting on fingers.
Children who start out using their fingers to reckon sums and differences in kindergarten tend to be more accurate... and consistent accuracy leads to quicker mastery. Thus, among children who use their fingers early on, finger use declines by second grade as they master the facts. By contrast, children who do not use their fingers in Kindergarten -- a characteristic of many children from low-income homes -- tend to rely on their fingers increasingly as they move through the primary grades and often fail to catch up to their more privileged peers in calculation accuracy. For reasons that are not yet clear, boys' finger use typically declines, and their accuracy improves more rapidly than do girls'.
So, are your brains in your hands? Well, not exactly, but as Krasa and Shunkwiler point out, the part of the brain that is involved in finger awareness also does mathematical calculations. And what this tells us is that more conscious engagement of our childrens' hands and fingers in their education will bring benefits we can count on. The following passage nails it, drives the nail through the door stop, locking the door open for purposeful re-engagement of the hands in children's education, provided of course that anyone would listen:
...the quantity-sensitive areas of the brain are embedded in a broad region that also allocates attention, tracks objects through time and space, and maintains hand and finger awareness and control -- all skills that young children use when they point to and count objects.
As nearly all early educators noted we enter the realm of abstract thinking directly through use of our hands. To leave them sidelined when there is so much learning to do is a tragic mistake.


  1. This is certainly good information to have. Growing up I always thought that it was some kind of handicap when I was always doing my math by counting my fingers but it felt right to me. Still today I am always counting and adding with my fingers and it still feels right (and I'm the teacher now :) ).

    If my brain isn't in my fingers then it most certainly has the most "direct" link to the brain, equal to or even more so than the eyes, ears, and nose.

  2. Dave, you are not alone in being an adult who uses his fingers. I go to the hardware store and the man asks how many I need. I check my fingers.

    There have been really strange distorted ideas in education about the use of the fingers to count. Some thought that children should be discouraged from counting on their fingers. But the research tells us otherwise.

    Hopefully, we will come to a better understanding of the seamless interrelationship between hand and brain.

    I am giving my kids instructions to count their strokes as they work with the hammer, saw, or sanding block. It is like a dancer or musician. It brings about a more uniform and deliberate result, and ties the learning to other things developing in the brain.

  3. Have you heard of chisenbop?

  4. yes I have. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FJx7GSLhOro