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Math and 'Executive Function' as Next Domains for Learning Sciences

Published:  November 15, 2010
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Deborah J. Stipek was one of several speakers at a forum marking the 10th anniversary of Neurons to Neighborhoods, one of the decade's most influential books of child development research.

Early mathematics and the concept of “executive function” should command more attention as researchers explore how children learn, according to Deborah J. Stipek, dean of Stanford University’s education school. Her remarks were part of a forum last month to mark the 10th anniversary of the influential book, Neurons to Neighborhoods

The brain’s ability to develop “executive” skills like controlling impulses and focusing attention on specific tasks can be powerfully predictive of social and academic skills, Stipek said. “Executive functions are shared in both domains.”

“In social interactions, children need to be able to learn the rules of the game,” she said, “they need to be able to inhibit the impulse to push a child out of the way when they run for a ball, or inhibit the impulse to grab a toy rather than ask for it, and they need to plan strategies for entering play or engaging other kids in play.”

“In intellectual work, they need to remember the instructions and pay attention to the task at hand despite the distractions around them,” she continued.

[Early educators who are looking for a preschool curriculum that children improve executive function skills may want to investigate Tools of the Mind, which uses play-based strategies and was the subject of a study published in Science.]

Stipek also emphasized the need for more research in early mathematics, calling it a domain that “we may have underestimated.” She used statistics from a study led by Greg Duncan, now at the University of California at Irvine that showed how a child’s strength in preschool mathematics can be predictive of academic achievement (including reading) in third grade.  Researchers don’t know exactly why this relationship exists, she said, “but we better find out.”

“Math, even for three and four year olds, is much more complex than we think it is,” she continued.  Students need learning experiences, she said, that are more than just “macaroni math” in which teachers ask children to count and then paste pieces of  dried pasta onto construction paper.  “It takes a lot of skill and understanding,” she said, to teach broader concepts like sorting or composing and decomposing.

[For more coverage of the importance of early math, see posts on the National Research Council's 2009 report, national math scores in fourth grade, and our suggestion to incorporate “morning math” in playful ways into family’s daily routines.]

We need to better understand the nature of the interconnections between different domains like these, Stipek explained.  How does an intervention in one area have affect on another? “I strongly recommend that we look at these cross-domain effects.”

She concluded with thought-provoking comments about the need to lessen the emphasis on teachers’ credentials in favor of more focus on skills that teachers need. She also pushed for advocacy work that informs the public about the importance of children’s early years.

For more information on the forum, see the webcast and presentations by others at the forum convened by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.

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