For much of the last century, educators and many scientists believed that children could not learn math at all before the age of five, that their brains simply were not ready.
But recent research has turned that assumption on its head. A number of other so called, conventional wisdom, has also been overturned; geometry, reading, language and self-control in class.
The findings, mostly from a branch of research called cognitive neuroscience, are helping to clarify when young brains are best able to grasp fundamental concepts.
In one recent study, for instance, researchers found that most preschoolers could perform rudimentary arithmetic, by using a practical example; distributing candies among two or three play animals.
In another study, scientists found that the brain’s ability to link letter combinations with sounds may not be fully developed until age 11. This is much later than many have previously assumed.
The teaching of basic academic skills has up until now been largely the realm of tradition and guesswork, but it is finally giving way to approaches based on cognitive science.
In several US cities, including Boston, Washington and Nashville, schools have been experimenting with new curriculums to improve math skills in preschoolers. In others, teachers have used techniques developed by brain function scientists, to help children overcome dyslexia.
In addition, schools in about a dozen US states have begun to use a program intended to accelerate the development of young students’ frontal lobes, in an effort to improve concentration and self-control in class.
“Teaching is an ancient craft, and yet we really have had no idea how it affected the developing brain,” said Kurt Fischer, director of the Mind, Brain and Education program at Harvard. “Well, that is beginning to change, and for the first time we are seeing the fields of brain science and education work together.”
This relationship is new and still awkward, experts say, and there is more hyperbole than evidence surrounding many “brain-based” commercial products on the market. Fortunately, there are others, like an early math program taught in Buffalo schools, that have a track record.
If these and similar efforts find traction in schools, experts say, they could transform teaching from the bottom up — giving the ancient craft a modern scientific compass.