Every parent can see that birth to 5 is a whirlwind of learning. Many parents strive to include informal learning activities like the ABC’s. But you may be surprised to learn that no aspect of early education is more important to a child’s academic future than mathematics. Research from Greg Duncan at the University of California, Irvine shows that early math skills in 5 year-olds are the single greatest predictor of later achievement.
So at a recent early childhood education conference in Chicago, I was excited to see policy leaders, researchers, corporations and foundations rallying around the importance of supporting our youngest learners, including in math. Their vision for accomplishing it … well, I found that less exciting as the only presentation focused on digital content for 4 year olds was my own.
Understandably. The vast majority of digital content “out there” for kids is of low educational quality. I enjoy Sponge-Bob, if not Disney princesses, as much as anyone. But having a 4 year old gesture her way through random edutainment apps is hardly the “transformation” of learning you’ve been hoping for. And yet, digital content is ideal for rapid scale-up, and every year we “wait” for a non-digital solution to reach scale, we miss out on yet another cohort of 4 million more 4 year-olds in the U.S.
So how do you judge digital program quality? First, look for a program that is radically different. Second, look for early, consistent, rigorous results. At the K-5 level, there is a digital, neuroscience-based math program — MIND Research Institute’s ST Math, that has shown potential for radical transformation of learning. ST Math has successfully doubled and tripled annual growth in math proficiency for Grade 2-5 students on state tests, as it presents math concepts as a full in-school curriculum of visual, language-free puzzles of virtual onscreen manipulatives.
If there exists a proven math program that teaches math visually, without requiring language proficiency or even reading skills, then what better age to apply it to than pre-readers – especially ones who don’t necessarily speak any English! ST Math is currently being piloted in select teacher-led, site-based Pre-K classrooms in Los Angeles. Imagine a teacher working with a 4-year old digital native, who is using a tablet to get literally “hands-on” with number sense.
If we want to level the education playing field before traditional schooling even starts, and lay a solid foundation across the nation for lifelong success in STEM fields, we need to start young and be bold. Digital, unconventional, deeper-learning tools like ST Math may be the transformation you’ve been looking for.
A version of this blog was published in the September issue of District Administration.