IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

IES Honors Dominic Gibson as Outstanding Predoctoral Fellow

Each year, IES recognizes an outstanding fellow from its Predoctoral Interdisciplinary Research Training Programs in the Education Sciences for academic accomplishments and contributions to education research. The 2018 winner, Dr. Dominic Gibson completed his Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at the University of Chicago. He is currently a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Washington where he specializes in understanding how children learn words and mathematical concepts. In this blog, Dominic discusses his research and his experience as an IES fellow.  

What inspired you to focus your research on early mathematics?

So many everyday activities as well as many of humanity’s greatest achievements rely on math. Simple math becomes so second nature to us that it is often difficult for older students to conceptualize what it would be like to not have a basic understanding of numbers. But children take months and often years to learn the meanings of just the first few number words (one, two, three) and to learn how the counting procedure really works. Children’s acquisition of other math terms (angle, proportion, unit of measurement) is similarly marked by misconceptions and slow, difficult learning.  

Overcoming these learning challenges relies on an interesting mixture of uniquely human abilities (like language) and skills we share with other animals. Moreover, children’s ability to master early math concepts predicts their future academic success. Therefore, by studying how children learn about math, we can better understand the sources of humanity’s unique achievements and apply this knowledge to reducing early achievement gaps and maximizing our potential.

Based on your research, what advice would you give parents of pre-kindergartners on how to help their children develop math skills?

My biggest piece of advice is to talk to children about numbers and other basic math concepts. Children benefit from abundant language input in general, and “math talk” is no different. Even simply talking about different numbers of things seems to be particularly important for acquiring early math concepts. Numbers can be easily incorporated into a variety of activities, like taking a walk (“let’s count the birds we see”) or going to the grocery store (“how many oranges should we buy?”). Likewise, good jumping off points for using other types of early math talk such as relational language are activities like puzzles (“this one is too curvy to fit here—we need to find a piece with a flat edge”) and block building (“can you put this small block on top of the bigger one?”).

It also may be useful to note that even when a child can say a word, they may not fully understand what it means. For instance, two- to four-year-old children can often recite a portion of the count list (for example, the numbers one through ten) but if you ask them to find a certain number of items (“can you give me three blocks?”) they may struggle when asked for sets greater than two or three. Therefore, in addition to counting, it is important to connect number words to specific quantities (“look there are three ducks”). It may be especially helpful to connect counting to the value of a set (“let’s count the ducks—one, two, three—there are three!”).

My last piece of advice is to be careful about the types of messages we send our children about math. Many people experience “math anxiety,” and if we are not careful, children can pick up on these signals and become anxious about math themselves or internalize negative stereotypes about the types of people who are and are not good at math. Ensuring that children feel empowered to excel in math is an important ingredient for their success.

How has being an IES predoctoral fellow helped your development as a researcher?

The diverse group of people and perspectives I encountered as an IES predoctoral fellow made a huge impact on my development as a researcher. As an IES predoctoral fellow pursuing a degree in psychology, I met many students and faculty members who were interested in the same questions that interest me but who approached these questions from a variety of other disciplines, such as economics, public policy, and sociology. I also connected with networks of educators and policymakers outside of academia who alerted me to important issues that I may have missed if I had only worked within my own discipline. Through these experiences, I gained new tools for conducting my research and learned to avoid the types of blind spots that often develop when approaching a problem from a single perspective. In particular, I gained an appreciation for the challenges of translating basic science to educational practice and the number of interesting research questions that emerge when attempting to do this work.

Compiled by Katina Rae Stapleton, Education Research Analyst and Program Officer for the Predoctoral Interdisciplinary Research Training Programs in the Education Sciences, National Center for Education Research

The Month in Review: August 2015

By Liz Albro, NCER Associate Commissioner of Teaching and Learning

Good Luck to Applicants!

Application deadlines for our main NCER and NCSER competitions have come and gone this month. We accepted applications for 5 competitions on August 6th and 3 competitions on August 20th. Now it’s time for us to begin screening applications and moving them into the peer review process!

NCER Staff Were Out and About

NCER staff had the opportunity to learn from experts in several meetings during the month of August.

Liz Albro attended the CRESST Conference 2015, where she participated in a session titled: Is There a Role for Evidence in the Future of K-16 Technology? The short answer was yes! She was joined at the meeting by Russ Shilling, the Executive Director of STEM Education at the Department, researchers with expertise in educational data mining, cognitive science, learning analytics, and assessment, and developers of education technology from around the world.

On August 20, NCER convened a technical working group (TWG) meeting on Researching the Influence of School Leaders on Student Outcomes. Nine researchers and practitioners who study education leadership met with ED staff to discuss the lessons learned from research that explicitly connects school leadership to student outcomes and the challenges to conducting such research. Department staff, including NCER’s Katina Stapleton, also presented information about education leadership studies funded by the National Center for Education Research, the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, and the Office of Innovation and Improvement. A meeting summary will be available soon on our TWG page.

In the final week of August, Meredith Larson, who oversees our research program on adult education, and Daphne Greenberg, the principal investigator of our National R&D Center, the Center for the Study of Adult Literacy, attended the 2015 National Meeting for Adult Education State Directors hosted by the Department’s Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education.

Between Parents and Kids: IES-Funded Research in the News

Two publications from IES-funded research hit the national news this month … and both highlighted the critical role that parent-child interactions play in children’s learning outcomes. In one article, featured on WebMD, Paul Morgan and his colleagues reported that 2-year-old children with larger oral vocabularies demonstrated better academic achievement and behavior at kindergarten entry. The team also discussed child and family characteristics that are related to vocabulary size at age 2, which may help identify which groups of children are at risk for needing early language intervention.

In the other, discussed in the New York Times, Sian Beilock, Susan Levine, and their colleagues reported that parents’ math anxiety is related to their young children’s math achievement – and seems to emerge when math-anxious parents try to help their kids with their math homework.

We Said Farewell to Our Interns

As August ended, our summer interns went back to school. We were sad to see them go, but excited for them as the new school year begins. Think you might be interested in interning at IES? Read an interview with one of our interns, and learn how to apply to the internship program at the Department.

Questions? Comments? Please send them to IESResearch@ed.gov