My students come to the first class of the semester so excited about working with young children. After they begin their preschool internships, you can see the joy when they talk about the children they work with – smiles light up faces and eyes twinkle. And then . . .
A few weeks into the course when I begin to talk about the importance of early math, I see their minds start to wander and a few stare at the floor (and one or two at the door). There is something about math that can trigger this discomfort and avoidance. Amazingly, though, by the end of the semester, as my students reflect on their experiences, I hear that math has become their favorite topic, that the children they teach love math activities, and even that they have found that teaching math to young children is one of their strengths. But getting to that unfettered enthusiasm for early math is a journey.
Embarking on the Journey: Reflecting on Our Mathematical Learning Histories
I teach at a large public university with a diverse student body. Many of my students are the first in their families to attend college, and some are the first to have graduated from high school. For my courses on the foundations of early childhood education and curriculum, my students take regular, deep dives into the world of early mathematical development. What do we know about young children’s mathematical development? How can we support that development? How do our own beliefs about mathematics affect how we teach? And why is math so important? (To answer this question yourself, read Math Matters: Children’s Mathematical Journeys Start Early, by Alan Schoenfeld and Deborah Stipek.)
As I have explored these questions with my students, it has become evident that they themselves are often uncomfortable with their own mathematical learning histories. We know that teachers’ own beliefs about mathematics, including their anxiety, affect how they teach. More importantly, teachers’ beliefs and anxieties affect how their students learn. (See this study on the math anxiety-performance link.) My aspiration is that young student teachers in my classes come to embrace early math as a fun, developmentally appropriate, and important part of early childhood learning, and that they develop effective pedagogical skills to teach math.
Coaches, Mentors, and Classroom Learning
In addition to encouraging my students to reflect on their own attitudes toward math learning and teaching, I have been fortunate to partner with a number of organizations to give students valuable, hands-on experience. Each student spends one day a week interning at a low-income public preschool. There, they benefit from experienced coaches and engaged mentor teachers. My students see children light up as they count, sort, build, measure, and engage in other playful math experiences, guided by skillful teachers.
Back in my classroom, I use the rich materials developed by the DREME Network’s teacher educator professional development team—Megan Franke, Herbert Ginsburg, Deborah Stipek, and myself. My students experience engaging classroom math activities and games, and learn to create their own. They learn about formative assessment, then construct their own assessment tools based on guidelines and suggestions. DREME’s research-based materials impress upon my students the importance of early math to children’s later academic achievement, and equip them to become effective, competent, and enthusiastic math educators.
New Teachers: Reflecting on the Early Math Journey
I’ve just finished spending a year with these students, and so I asked them for feedback on their mathematical journey. Three themes emerged. First, my students remarked that initially early math wasn’t on their radar when thinking about early childhood education, but now they realize just how important a foundation it is for children’s later learning. Second, they described how much the children have learned over the last year, understanding mathematical concepts my students never dreamed possible. Finally, my students say that they are continually amazed at how excited the children are about math games and activities every day they are together.
And, I realize that in engaging in math activities in the university and preschool classrooms, my students are experiencing a change of heart and mind around mathematics. During a review of mathematical development at the end of the semester, they are engaged and smiling, eagerly answering questions. No one stares at the floor or the door. I’d call this a victory for early childhood math education, one new teacher at a time.