Respect for the brain’s working memory is paramount to all learning. When the working memory is overloaded, it becomes impossible to take in new knowledge. It’s a bit like when the storage on a computer is full, and nothing else can fit. Unfortunately, the importance of the working memory’s capacity is rarely taken into account in the classroom. Children who could have excelled at math fall behind and develop math anxiety.
By Hanne Finstad.
How, then, can children learn math in a way that doesn’t overload their working memory? The key is to introduce only one new concept at a time. The Canadian organization JUMP Math understands the importance of this. Their incremental approach supports the working memory’s capacity and fosters math confidence. The JUMP Math model is extremely successful. Scientist Factory got to experience this first hand when we introduced JUMP Math to six graders who struggled with math.
We downloaded a module that included a guide to teaching and student assignments. The module was about fractions and was also supposed to strengthen the students’ math confidence. We started by warming up with addition and some simple multiplication. We made sure that everyone knew basic multiplication before we moved on to the addition of fractions. The students practised the method step by step. They practised even the most basic things like drawing the fraction bars in preparation for a new problem. Reading difficulties were not an issue. None of the assignments were text-based.
All the students had completed the problems after three lessons spread across two weeks. They now knew several strategies for adding fractions. Even more remarkable was the changed attitude towards maths. Everyone hated math when we started. But suddenly it had become fun!
Some might claim that these students only learned a recipe and didn’t deepen their understanding of mathematics. In part this is true. But if we had continued doing JUMP Math, the level of difficulty would gradually have increased and resulted in a deeper understanding. After a while, they would also know how to solve problems independently.
Sadly, the math curriculum these students returned to was very different and challenging for the working memory. The textbook had many different types of problems on every page. Therefore, the students had to master many different skills at the same time to solve the problems. This is where the issues start. A child might not have the necessary skills to solve such problems if they have not practised each skill incrementally. On top of that, the pages of the textbook were overflowing with text, figures, colours and different graphic elements that starkly contrasted the simple black and white of the JUMP Math materials. The school’s textbook also failed to prioritize repetition. Repetition is very important in order for something to be stored in the brain’s long-term memory.
JUMP Math was developed by mathematician John Mighton. JUMP is an acronym for “Junior Undiscovered Math Prodigy.” Mighthon claims that his pedagogy makes math a subject that anyone can excel at. His claim is supported by many scientific studies that have looked at JUMP Math.
It isn’t surprising, then, that JUMP Math is spreading to many countries. The assignment we tried was developed for children with math anxiety, with the idea that their confidence would get a proper boost if they learned how to master fractions which are often considered difficult.
- For the love of math. J. Mighton, Scientific American, s. 61–67, 2013
- Working memory and early numeracy training in preschool children. M.C. Passolunghi et al., Child Neuropsychology, 2014
- The influence of experiencing success in math on math anxiety, perceived math competence and math performance. B.R.J. Jansen et al., Learning and Individual Differences, vol 24, s. 190–197, 2013
- Working memory, worry and algebraic ability. K. Trezise et al., Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, vol 121, s. 120–136, 2014
- The Myth of Ability. J. Mighton, Walker, 2003
Try JUMP Math yourself by downloading material from their website.