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Education Opinion

Math Education Should Focus on Visuals, Research Says

By Matthew Lynch — April 14, 2016 2 min read

There is new evidence on how the brain functions when we think about mathematics that could alter the way the subject is taught in K-12 and higher education classrooms. According to at Stanford University, the new paper, “SEEING AS UNDERSTANDING: The Importance of Visual Mathematics for our Brain and Learning,” supports the use of visual mathematics. The paper explains developing finger discrimination in students is crucial for the development of the brain and long-term success in math.

Think about how we learn math. Our brains actually visualize a representation of fingers when we solve problems, even if we don’t count on our actual fingers. Training people on ways to perceive their own fingers results in higher math achievement, according to co-author Dr. Jo Boaler, professor of mathematics education at Stanford Graduate School of Education and the co-founder of, Stanford’s center that provides resources for teaching and learning mathematics.

Dr. Boaler says that schools don’t know about this brain research, so many won’t allow students to use their fingers to count while doing math. The latest research suggestions that by not allowing students to count on their fingers, we actually halt their mathematical development.

The paper explains that parents and educators can work in unity to combat the issues surrounding math instruction in the classroom, and provides resources to help strengthen the visual pathways in their brains and achieve at higher levels of mathematics. The research shows that all individuals use visual pathways when they study math, so it’s best that parents and teachers develop this area of children’s brains.

Some ways this can be done is through using visuals, providing the opportunity for students to use drawing and visualizations in mathematics, asking students how they see mathematical ideas, and allowing students to represent mathematical ideas in a variety of ways (pictures, graphs, etc.).

Dr. Boaler explains that visual math helps students at any level develop a further understanding of the subject.

The authors also place a sense of urgency on the need to change the ways math is taught to students to support and encourage them to function well in society. When today’s students are in the workforce, these skills will be essential to have. All jobs in modern society require employees to see data patterns visually.

I appreciate the urgency the authors place on changing the way math is taught to students. I hope parents and teachers utilize the provided resources to lead students to greater success in mathematics.

The opinions expressed in Education Futures: Emerging Trends in K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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