Early Childhood Teachers' Misconceptions about Mathematics Education for Young Children in the United States

Article excerpt

New vision for early childhood mathematics education in the United States

MATHEMATICS EDUCATION FOR YOUNG children is not new. Mathematics has been a key part of early childhood education around the world at various times during the past 200 years. For example, in the 1850s, Friedrich Frobel in Germany introduced a system of guided instruction centred on various 'gifts', including blocks that have been widely used to help young children learn basic mathematics, especially geometry, ever since (Brosterman, 1997). In the early 1900s in Italy, Maria Montessori (1964), working in the slums of Rome, developed a structured series of mathematics activities to promote young children's mathematics learning. In the United States, however, as the early childhood education field has maintained its time-honoured tradition of emphasising social, emotional and physical development, historically not much attention has been paid to teaching academics, especially mathematics, to young children (Balfanz, 1999). Although there had been attempts from time to time to make early childhood programs more academically rigorous, the focus was primarily on language and literacy development (National Research Council, 2009). In the turn of the 21st century, the early childhood education field in the United States has begun to take a big step forward in promoting early childhood mathematics education. In 2002, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), jointly with the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), issued a position statement that advocates 'high quality, challenging, and accessible mathematics education for three- to six-year old children' (p. 1), and provided research-based essential recommendations to guide classroom practices. Since then, many national, state and local organisations have embraced this new vision (Clements & Sarama, 2004; NAEYC, 2003; NAEYC & NCTM, 2002; NCTM, 2000, 2006). As a result, early childhood teachers across the United States are now faced with a mandate to teach mathematics to young children.

The authors, as early childhood teacher educators and researchers, have attempted to assist prospective and practising teachers to realise the new vision of early childhood mathematics education. Our experiences tell us that many teachers, despite their good faith efforts to provide best practices to young children, are still confused and anxious about the teaching and learning of mathematics, and hesitant to change (Lee & Ginsburg, 2007a, 2007b). This hesitancy is perfectly understandable given that, until recently, instruction in mathematics was not expected in early childhood classrooms in the US (Balfanz, 1999). Rather, teachers were cautioned that purposefully teaching mathematics was unnecessary, inappropriate, or even harmful to young children (e.g. Elkind, 1981, 1998). In the absence of sound preparation for early mathematics education, many early childhood practitioners continue to hold opinions or beliefs that are not consistent with nor based on up-to-date research evidence.

In this article, we discuss nine common misconceptions about learning and teaching mathematics for young children that are widespread among prospective and practising early childhood teachers in the United States. These misconceptions were identified based on our in-depth interviews with early childhood teachers about the key issues in early mathematics education (Lee & Ginsburg, 2007a, 2007b) as well as our experiences in teaching early childhood students, conducting workshops with early childhood teachers (Ginsburg, Jang, Preston, VanEsselstyn & Appel, 2004; Ginsburg et al., 2006), working with them in early childhood classrooms, and engaging in informal conversations with them. Our description of the myths is also based on available research literature (Ginsburg, Lee & Boyd, 2008). The nine misconceptions are:

1. Young children are not ready for mathematics education. …