Early Numeracy: Mathematicians at Play

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“Problem solving is natural to young children because the world is new to them & they exhibit curiosity, intelligence & flexibility as they face new situations. The challenge … is to build on children’s innate problem-solving inclinations & to preserve & encourage a disposition that values problem solving.”

• Principles & Standards for School Mathematics

 

We want all children to see themselves as confident and competent mathematicians. They need to be able to explore ideas, solve problems and communicate their thinking. Mathematics continues to be a barrier for some struggling learners and we recognize that early intervention is the key to improving outcomes. The Early Numeracy Teacher (ENT) position has been developed to support these learners in the Early Years.

The Early Years are a time for exploring – for play, talk and investigations. Our youngest learners come to understand key concepts through their play. They spontaneously explore mathematical concepts through activities that are engaging and encourage them to think. The ENT works collaboratively with the classroom teacher to scaffold, discuss and develop the students’ deep understanding of important mathematical concepts.

In 2014-15 Early Numeracy Teachers will provide support to kindergarten and grade one students in 13 elementary schools. It is based on a collaborative model between the ENT and classroom teacher to provide in-class, targeted small group instruction, through meaningful engaging activities.

Early Numeracy Teachers are trained in current research and pedagogy on early learning and numeracy, under the guidance of Sandra Ball, one of our district Helping Teachers. They are also trained in the use of assessment tools such as the early numeracy “What Do They Know?” (WDTK). Classroom teachers and Early Numeracy teachers work collaboratively to assess what the students know (a strength based model) and develop instructional strategies to support the learning.

In order to be successful in the early years, students need to demonstrate capacity in three areas of numeracy: subitizing (the instant recognition of a quantity), partitioning or decomposition (the ability to break apart a number and put it back together again), and patterning (the ability to recognize, represent and describe repeating patterns with different attributes). These are the main concepts that the ENT will focus on with our ‘at promise’ students.

Early numeracy support has been provided to schools for three years. Comments from teachers indicate the importance and value this work has had for learners and for their own growth as professionals.

The Perspective of Early Learning Teachers:

“Most importantly I have seen the importance of ‘not teaching the intuitive knowledge out of students’ while developing our young mathematicians. The role allows students the time and space to invent and play with their own strategies, permitting a more flexible rather than rigid approach to numeracy, and they begin to show a more in-tune understanding of math concepts because they were personally involved in the making-meaning process.” 

“It is imperative to ‘catch them when they’re young’.  I have discovered that children as young as kindergarteners can do the work of a mathematician if they are given that mindset. They are most proud of their work when you tell them they are ‘being’ mathematicians and ‘thinking’ like one.  I have learned that there are three basic fundamental concepts that form the foundation which leads to understanding.  By focusing on these three areas, I have found that ‘at promise’ students have the capacity to become confident learners in numeracy.  In the process of ‘doing’ math, they are also developing a positive attitude, bringing much joy and excitement to the tasks as I hear them express:  ‘I’m good at this game, I love Math. It’s so much fun, I wish we could do Math all day.’  I have learned that generally it takes ‘at promise’ students longer to grasp concepts, but when you present the concepts through the use of many different game formats and interesting hands-on manipulatives, they stay actively engaged.   They often surprise you with their thinking and understanding, and I have had the privilege to be present to share in their thinking, see where they are struggling, and to celebrate their successes. …They begin to see relationships between numbers and patterns and they become more flexible in their thinking and problem solving.  Part of my role is to help these students see themselves as capable learners.”

The Perspective of Classroom Teachers:

ENTPic1“Working with the ENT has made me a much more confident math teacher. The program has encouraged us to stay focused on math at certain set times during the week. The students look forward to the hands on/tactile activities and games each week. I love how we can focus on small groups and tackle different learners in different ways. Over the past 2 years we have created so many stations/games for the students to use. They want to go to those stations even when it isn’t math time.”

The Perspective of a Principal:

A principal describes why she felt the early numeracy support was beneficial to her school:
• The ENT develops positive, trusting relationships with staff and students over time
• Students change perception and self-confidence in numeracy and are more positive “Math is fun!”
• Working collaboratively with classroom teachers over time to model best practice and expose highly engaging activities, resources and manipulative strategies for teaching
• There is easier transfer of number sense, patterning, etc. understanding to classroom lessons

The role of the ENT is to work collaboratively to support students who need to build their confidence, competence and disposition of mathematics. The redesigned mathematics curriculum emphasizes problem solving. Just as there is more to literacy than teaching the rules and procedures of language, there is more to numeracy than teaching the rules and procedures of mathematics. Numerate individuals not only “know” mathematics, but also understand it in personally meaningful terms. They feel competent and confident about their ability to draw on the necessary knowledge and apply it in new and relevant ways. The results we have collected over the last few years strongly support the importance of this work for our ‘at promise’ mathematicians.

Note: Karen Alvarez (@_alvarez_k) District Principal (Early Learning, Literacy, Fine Arts) and Sandra Ball (@SandraBall1), our Early Learning Inner City Helping Teacher, co-authored this post. A wealth of resources and examples for supporting Early Learners can be found on Sandra Ball’s website (see here). For more information on Numeracy projects in Surrey Schools, including a program review, check out this tab.

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