A new study shows that when impoverished preschoolers participate in math games, they tend to retain a superior ability to grasp those concepts more than a year later; however, this knowledge does not appear to translate into higher scores once they enter a formal classroom setting.
The findings, based on an experiment in Delhi, India, sheds light on the ways preschool activities may or may not help children develop cognitive skills.
For the study, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard University, and New York University engaged Indian preschool children in math games designed to help them grasp number and geometry concepts. They also led the children in social games intended to help them cooperate and learn together.
“It’s very clear you have a significant improvement in the math skills,” said Dr. Esther Duflo, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics at MIT and co-author of the study. “We find that the gains are persistent … which I think is quite striking.”
However, she adds, by the time the children in the study were learning formal math concepts in primary school, such as specific number symbols, the preschool intervention did not affect learning outcomes.
The findings bear heavy on the question of how early-childhood educational interventions can help poor children access the same educational concepts that more privileged children have before entering primary school.
Dr. Elizabeth Spelke, a professor of psychology and researcher at the Laboratory for Developmental Studies at Harvard University notes that around age five, children “transition from developing knowledge in a common-sense, spontaneous manner, to going to school, where they have to start grappling with formal subjects and building formal skills.”
She adds that this can be a highly challenging transition for children living in poverty whose parents had no schooling themselves.
To address this problem, the researchers developed a field experiment involving 1,540 children, who were five years old on average and enrolled in 214 Indian preschools.
About one-third of the preschool children were put in groups playing math games which exposed them to concepts of number and geometry. Another third of the preschool children played games that focused on social content, encouraging them to, for example, estimate the intensity of emotional expressions on cards. The remaining preschoolers acted as a control group and had no exposure to either type of game.
The researchers then followed up on the abilities of children from all three groups: soon after the intervention, then at six months and 12 months later.
They found that even after the first year of primary school, children who had played the math games were better at those particular skills, compared to children from the other groups. The social game intervention impacted the children’s social skills but did not produce a comparable effect on math skills; the effects of the math games were specific to their math content.
Despite these effects, the early exposure to numerical concepts did not lead to an advantage for the students in the math group when it came to achievement in primary school. As the paper states, “Although the math games caused persistent gains in children’s non-symbolic mathematical abilities, they failed to enhance children’s readiness for learning the new symbolic content presented in primary school.”
According to Duflo, one reason for this may be that children in Delhi primary schools learn math in a rote style that may not have allowed the experiment’s set of games to have an effect.
Children in these schools, she observes, “are [only] learning to sing ‘one times one is one, one times two is two.’” For this reason, Duflo notes, the greater understanding of the concepts provided by the preschool math games might be more beneficial when aligned with a different kind of curriculum.
Or, as Spelke adds, “the negative thing that we learned” from the study is that lab work is not necessarily “sufficient to establish what actually causes knowledge to grow in the mind of a child, over timespans of years in the environments in which children live and learn.”
The researchers are now designing follow-up studies in which the games will segue more seamlessly into the curriculum being used in a particular school district.
“We want to include in the games themselves some element of bridging between the intuitive knowledge of mathematics and the formal knowledge they will be actually exposed to,” said Duflo.
The ultimate goal of helping disadvantaged preschool children is still the same: to give them an equal footing or even equip them to be a step ahead.
“If we could take the poorest kids and instead of sending them to school with a [learning deficit], because they haven’t been to preschool or been to very good preschools, or their parents have not been able to help them out in the schoolwork, why couldn’t we try to use the best cognitive science available and bring them to school with a slight advantage?” said Duflo.
The findings are published in the journal Science.
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