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