Adults tend to want their children to outgrow using their fingers to solve number problems. “The finger technique is considered to be a less intelligent way of counting and calculating,” Aditya Singhal writes on math-blog.com. “Most adults think of it as a technique that might hamper the developments of the kid’s brain and consider it to be a childish trick which renders answers but does not help in understanding.”
But they’re wrong, Singhal goes on to say, making an argument that seems to be getting increasing credence in the world of mathematics education. The reasoning goes like this: Fingers are useful (and always accessible) visual aids; visual aids have repeatedly been shown to aid learning; many students struggle with mathematics; it’s nothing but conventional thinking that prevents teachers and parents from offering this (literal) helping hand.
Singhal quotes government studies saying that “finger-based strategies play an important role in learning and understanding arithmetic” and that students who have a good knowledge of finger-math in first grade do better arithmetic on paper in second grade” — and have better reasoning skills later in life. He also refers to work done by Stanford professor Jo Boaler, who wrote “Why Kids Should Use Their Fingers in Math Class” for the Atlantic magazine in April. “Stopping students from using their fingers when they count could, according to the new brain research, be akin to halting their mathematical development,” Boaler wrote in that article “The need for and importance of finger perception could even be the reason that pianists, and other musicians, often display higher mathematical understanding than people who don’t learn a musical instrument. Teachers should celebrate and encourage finger use among younger learners and enable learners of any age to strengthen this brain capacity through finger counting and use.”
It’s always soothing to be told that something that is actually easier to get your kids to do is the right thing to do. To shake up that complacency, go to math-blog.com and check out how Singhal says your kids could progress. There’s a way to use your fingers to count up to 30 (three “partitions” on each finger); a Korean method called Chisenbop counting that enables you to finger-count to 99; and a finger-based “imaginary abacus” to do complicated calculations such as multiplying strings of 10-digit numbers.