Plenty of parents and teachers discourage children from counting on their fingers, mostly because they fear that the child will become dependent on this method and hinder their learning. But though it may not seem like the most sophisticated way of doing arithmetic, research says that counting on your fingers actually makes you better at math, reports The Atlantic.
Fingers are important visual aids
Researchers Ilaria Berteletti and James R. Booth found that even though we don’t use our fingers as we make calculations, we continue to “see” a representation of our fingers. Analyzing a group of 8-to-13-year-olds doing complex subtraction problems, the researchers saw that even though they didn’t count with their fingers, the parts of the brain associated with the fingers lit up.
Earlier research has found that the more aware children are of their fingers, the better they become at math. This trend continues even up until university.
Psychologist Brian Butterworth, a researcher in math learning, once wrote that students who aren’t allowed to count with their fingers will probably have a hard time with numbers. “Without the ability to attach number representation to the neural representation of fingers and hands… the numbers themselves will never have a normal representation in the brain.” Fingers, in other words, are highly important visual aids when it comes to numbers.
On the next page: what teachers and parents should do moving forward.
Don’t discourage kids from counting with fingers
Instead of discouraging kids from counting with their fingers, parents and teachers should put more focus on “finger discrimination”, which not only covers counting, but also distinguishing between fingers. (This might explain why pianists and other musicians are usually better at math than non-musicians.)
Not all children are naturally gifted with numbers, and some may just need more visuals to aid them in their learning. Teachers and parents should encourage these children with visual learning tools.
“Teachers who have stopped students using fingers are doing what they thought was best for children, as the idea that finger use is babyish, and needs to be discouraged, is widespread,” writes Stanford professor Jo Boaler in a paper on visual learning. “But we now have the knowledge that should change this and encourage teachers to focus on finger discrimination and use in classrooms to a much greater extent.”
READ: 5 Tips on how to make kids love math
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