Why Early Math Education Is So Important

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

As parents, we always want the best for our children. Without a second thought, we invest in the best music and sports classes that we can afford to stimulate their brains and muscles. We arrange outings and playdates in order to provide our children with a diversity of experiences and friendships. By doing these things, we hope not only to help them now, but also to equip them with the skills they will need 10 or 20 years down the road.

We can say, with reasonable accuracy, that the hottest, most necessary skill that will be in demand in the coming years is math; and our children are sorely lacking appropriate math education today.

Why Math? Many parents and grandparents remember well the tedious math lessons that seemed to lead nowhere. One common objection I hear is, “I survived all my life without Math, and I am just fine.” Yes, twenty or even ten years ago Math was not as critical as it is becoming now. Many non-Math people found successful careers in publishing, law, management and other fields that indeed required little to no Math. But that is rapidly changing–even the publishing industry has been transformed into a business run by, yes, Math-proficient accountants who are trying to keep once-robust publishers afloat in the face of ever-dominating social media, the latter built and run by Math-adept types.

Another common objection to Math is “my children will go to work in the public service, where they will change the world and help people.” And, yes, this too is a noble goal, but it requires a solid understanding of available money balances and, as a result, Math.

Finally, “my children will be independently wealthy and need not care for things like Math.” Good for them; however, even the wealthiest individuals can face seemingly-sudden poverty if they are unable to grasp investing concepts due to their Math deficiencies. Even if your children are independently wealthy and don’t need to work a single day in their lives, wouldn’t you like to equip them with a skill that could provide a self-sufficient and fulfilling career for self-actualization, if not sustenance?

And what will be the hottest careers 10 years from now? The fastest-growing careers today are centered on math-related analytics, big data and all sorts of automation, including robotics. And yes, even if your child is a gifted literary genius, understanding Math would help him or her succeed in developing the next iteration of automation in natural language processing and interpretation, as well as generating content, which is shaping up to be one of the key skills in the next decade.

Learning Math, however, is not straightforward. In general, all learning occurs by various means: reading, listening, graphical representation, writing concepts down, and building models. Math is no exception. To succeed at Math, children need to be exposed to Math concepts from all possible angles, as many times and as often as possible.

Learning, in general, tends to be non-straightforward (or “non-linear” in Math terms). Instead of following a steady rise, learning occurs in stages: a long plateau with little detectable improvement followed by a rapid rise, followed by another plateau, and another rise. The most important objective in learning, therefore, is to keep going — to keep practicing and working out concepts until the swift rise to the next level ultimately occurs.

In children, the learning plateaus can present a special challenge: waiting for the next rise in learning can be excruciatingly painful in our age of instant gratification. Keeping children’s attention through the slow stages is one of the most challenging parts of education. Several things help: play, changes in activities, and peer competition.

The importance of friendly competition cannot be overemphasized. Studies show that children beginning as early as Grade 2 tend to respond to peer pressure much more than to parental incentives. Surrounded by other children working on mathematical problems, children will be motivated to do more math. When grouped with the anti-math crowd, even the brightest and most mathematically-capable minds might wither forever.

When I ask my mathematically-brilliant students what they thought about their elementary math education, the answer is almost invariably the same: after years of grunt work that includes arithmetic drilling and other basic mathematical concepts, the true beauty of abstract math reveals itself, making the study of math a fascinating and rewarding art form from then on.

Today, much of the public and private school curriculum is based on what is known as “Singapore Math” and, specifically, the so-called “number sense” — which makes physical associations between numbers and, for instance, toys that a child handles while counting. And while Singapore Math is a great starting point, it may not be enough in the forms currently taught in the schools. To put it plainly, our students need more rigorous training. After all, students from Mainland China rule the Math departments at the top U.S. universities today, not Singaporeans, and definitely not Americans.

In countries like China, early mathematics is reinforced with vigor. Plain memorization is common and is, perhaps, less suitable for the U.S. children accustomed to play-based environments. Math exercises, however, can be rigorous and fun and play-like at the same time. As we demonstrate in the St. John’s Math & Science Club, held every Saturday, 5:30 – 6:30 PM, at St. John’s Parish House in Southampton, NY, kids have a great time when engaged in math-based craft projects and board games.

In fact, Fr. Patrick Edwards, the Rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church, where the St. John’s Math & Science Club meets, is a particularly interesting case study of a patron of Maths. A computer programmer in his former career, he definitely excels at Math. Now, having chosen a spiritual path and–some might say–a completely un-Mathematical career, he takes advantage of his broad-based learning to promote growth and learning in his parish and community. Please join us for a fun hour of projects and games that cultivate math and science learning and achievement.