In Defense of Finger-counting

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

In the recent Atlantic magazine article entitled, Why Kids Should Use Their Fingers in Math Class, the writers talk about how neuroscience sees using finger-counting in math as essential for improving math comprehension. Essential! Go figure…

I’ve always been told to encourage my children to stop using fingers to count. My children are now practicing “mental math”, where they must figure out how to do a problem WITHOUT writing it out first. You know what? I’ve always had a problem with that idea. My math teachers insisted that we showed our work, every…single…step. If not, we got marked down. I learned to “see” numbers in my head because I first saw them on the paper, and saw them using my hands. My math teachers were right! Turns out that our brain comes equipped with a somatosensory finger area. In this area of the brain, “we ‘see’ a representation of our fingers in our brains, even when we do not use fingers in a calculation.” The article goes on to say that we need to encourage students to count with their fingers because if they stop, it is “akin to halting their mathematical development”! Wow…

And if you’re wondering, this also can be one way to close the achievement gap created by income inequality. Finger counting is part of a large area of brain research that focuses on visual representation and its impact on the brain and learning. The article highlights a study that talks about the benefits of board games for low-income preschoolers, it was found that “after four 15-minute sessions of playing a game with a number line, differences in knowledge between students from low-income backgrounds and those from middle-income backgrounds were eliminated.” In other words, we should not stop using what educators call “manipulatives” to help children learn math. We come equipped with 10 very good “manipulatives” that our students should continue to use during math.

We should not short-circuit the brain development of our children by placing them too quickly in front of electronic devices. We cannot make them reliant on electronics to do the thinking for them. Working with the brain, rather than against it or ignoring it altogether, is one way we can help all children do well in school. We don’t learn anything new from machines. The best “machine” is the one sitting right in between our ears. We should learn how to use that one better. Math is cool, fun, and can continue to be if we just use our hands!