Interestingly, a child's 'finger perception' is an excellent predictor of success in mathematics.
Kids learn math in many different ways, as every teacher knows, but there is one universal method that seems to work for all—using fingers to count. Unfortunately, kids often hide their finger-counting under the table, since it is perceived by many teachers and parents as being very rudimentary and something to get beyond. Now, however, there is interesting research explaining why fingers work so well, and why educators should not discourage children from using their fingers.
Studies have found that mathematical ability is linked to something called “finger perception.” In other words, the more recognition a child has of his/her own fingers, the better s/he tends to perform in math.
So how does one measure finger perception, also known as finger gnosia?
“Researchers block the person’s hands from view, touch one or two fingers, and then ask the person to identify which of their fingers was tagged. People with weak finger sense have trouble differentiating one finger from another." (via Wall Street Journal)
Dr. Ilaria Berteletti, educational neuroscientists at Gaudellet University, ran tests to see what’s going on inside the brain when subjects add, subtract, and multiply. She found that addition and subtraction always activate the two regions of the brain associated with fingers:
“The somatosensory area, which responds to sensations such as pressure, pain or heat, and the motor area, which controls movement, were both active during subtraction, even though the children did not use their fingers to arrive at the answers.”
Multiplication, by contrast, did not activate those same parts of the brain, suggesting that the operation uses a different network. As Dr. Berteletti points out, multiplication is usually learned through rote memorization.
“Previous studies have shown that a 6-year-old child’s finger perception is a better predictor of math success in the next grade than standard test scores, and training children to improve their finger sense has been demonstrated to also improve their arithmetic.”
Scientists are still trying to figure out exactly why math and fingers are so closely linked, but Stanford math professor Jo Boaler says it has to do with fingers creating “normal representation” in the brain. Visual and physical math solutions are invaluable to young students, who do not yet have the ability to perform mental math abstractly, but will reach that point more quickly with those physical tools.
The takeaway? Put away the calculators and don’t harp on your kids about counting on their fingers! None of the education experts is concerned that finger-counting will go on too long; kids naturally outgrow it. They stand to benefit from using a concrete representation for as long as they need it.