I was sitting at my desk, drinking my morning coffee when I came across an email forwarded from a parent. The email contained a message from an elementary school math specialist, where she was sharing her findings after working with a student. I read the message a couple of times before recognizing that what the math specialist identified as one of the problems was the student's use of her fingers for calculating numbers and how this was slowing down the student. The math specialist advocated learning "quick strategies" for making calculations so that the student would rely less on her fingers, and increase her speed.
I began to reflect on my own math experience in elementary school. I certainly used my fingers to solve math problems for years. I relied on them almost desperately. I remember feelings of shame and anxiety resulting from having to sit on my hands and not being able to use them openly. I hid my fingers under my desk or I could feel them twitch under my legs, but they continued to be my calculating machine. I still "feel" my fingers when I'm calculating and solving complex equations. I wondered what accounts for this. Is finger use, as a strategy problematic? Should we deter our students from using their fingers when fingers are less conceptual? How can we promote new strategies? (We can ask students to solve 19 x 4 mentally and to share their strategies. Mental math is a great way to promote number flexibility and sharing different strategies can promote new paths to solving math problems.)
I still had questions about calculating on fingers, so I reached out to Jo Boaler, professor of Mathematics at Stanford, and director of youcubed. Jo tweeted right back,"fingers are so important." She shared an article she wrote and was published in The Atlantic, Why Kids Should Use Their Fingers in Math Class.
I quickly devoured the article along with another cup of coffee. The article confirmed my intuition about "feeling" my fingers when I work up complex equations. Here's some of what I learned. Neuroscience has located an area of the brain that "sees fingers" far beyond the time when people use their fingers to count. When students are permitted to perceive and represent their own fingers in solving math problems, they improve in arithmetic knowledge. Finger use and knowledge is critical. If finger use and fluency is not permitted in the process of learning about the qualities of numbers, especially counting and ordering numbers then numbers, "will never have a normal representation in the brain."
"Stopping students from using their fingers when they count could, according to the new brain research, be akin to halting their mathematical development. Fingers are probably one of our most useful visual aids, and the finger area of our brain is used well into adulthood."