Research News

UW’s Wager, Graue putting spotlight on significance of 4K math education

July 21, 2015

In study after study, high-quality early education is showing to be vitally important in placing children of all backgrounds on a path to academic success.

The importance of reading and early literacy development, in particular, is drilled into the consciousness of parents and those who look after and educate young children.

Beth Graue
Sometimes lost in this early education conversation is the significance of mathematics, a fact that strikes UW-Madison’s Beth Graue as peculiar.

“Literacy has long garnered lots of attention but researchers have found that mathematics knowledge is a better predictor of later academic achievement than early literacy,” says Graue, a former kindergarten teacher who is the Sorenson Professor of Childhood Studies and chair of the nation’s No. 1-ranked Department of Curriculum and Instruction.

Anita Wager, an assistant professor of mathematics education with UW-Madison’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction, and Graue have spent the past five years working with local 4-year-old kindergarten teachers on a project funded by the National Science Foundation that examines teaching math in 4K.

And on Saturday, July 25, the duo will be hosting more than 100 4K teachers from across Wisconsin for a conference titled, “Summer Counts: Investing in Children’s Funds of Knowledge Through Play.”

Anita Wager photo
The day-long event at the Pyle Center on the UW-Madison campus will center on “what good math looks like,” says Wager, who has worked with nearly 60 Madison Metropolitan School District educators who teach 4K over the past five years. “It provides an opportunity for 4K teachers in Wisconsin to connect and collaborate with colleagues to learn more about teaching math in culturally and developmentally responsive ways.”

The conference will feature: panel discussions with top academics in the field of teaching and learning, and early childhood math; a poster session in which 4K teachers from area schools who have participated in professional development opportunities with Graue and Wager over the years will share their action research findings; and several break-out sessions to further coach teachers on the skills needed to teach 4K math.

This event is an outgrowth of Wager's NSF-funded Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER) project, "Professional Development for Culturally Relevant Teaching and Learning in Pre-K Mathematics."

But what is 4K math, anyway?

Heidi Schultz, who teaches 4-year-old kindergarten at Madison’s Falk Elementary, explains that math is embedded in a range of everyday experiences for her young students. It can consist of things like basic patterning and sorting and grouping of objects, to matching items, counting and number identification.

Patterns“There are so many opportunities that exist to enrich or explore or expand on math ideas and concepts,” says Schultz, who has worked with Graue and Wager on 4K math professional development. “But you have to learn how to take advantage of these opportunities. Maybe a child is serving a plate of pretend cookies and you can talk about how many cookies there are. Or you’ll notice patterns and ask a child what they think about them. More so than early literature, early math opportunities are very much embedded in everyday life.” 

Renae DeBarbieri, a UW-Madison alumna who teachers 4-year-old kindergarten at Madison’s Huegel Elementary, echoes many of those thoughts by highlighting how it’s most valuable to teach young children about math concepts during playtime -- as opposed to sitting a group of kids down in front of a whiteboard.

“It’s important to weave these concepts into play time or songs and music or other sensory activities,” says DeBarbieri. “It’s taking advantage of moments where kids are naturally involved with counting or sorting – and then having a strong background about what math content is and being able to apply and address it with students as it’s taking place.”

Wager explains that the 4K teachers she has worked with are generally surprised with the extent to which “math is everywhere and much easier to do than they had anticipated. They could connect a math component to so many things that they were already doing in their class – whether it be on a field trip or a story they read or a game kids were playing.”

Dice and countingFor traditional early childhood educators, Graue says there is often an apprehension about stepping into childhood play – for fear that they’re going to stop it.

“What you have to do as a teacher is go in and become part of the play,” says Graue, “You have to be able to join in. The metaphor we’ve been using is the idea of improvisation. In acting, improvisation is a really technical thing you do in response to other people. And teachers who have good early math knowledge, good knowledge of typical 4-year-olds, concrete knowledge about children’s home life, they pull those things together and by improvising then they can build on those things to make something bigger than any one of them.”

DeBarbieri, for one, is a strong proponent of giving those who teach 4K these valuable tools and insights into improving early math.

“I’m a math person, so I’ve always enjoyed math and gotten excited seeing kids be excited about math,” says DeBarbieri, who previously taught grades 1 to 3. “But one of the biggest reasons this program excites me is because I’ve seen first and second and third graders come through a class who are already behind or struggling or lacking certain math skills. What’s really fueling me is helping make sure all kids get a strong base and foundation so that everyone has the opportunity to succeed.”