Visual Math!

September 6, 2017
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Math Teaching Needs to be More Visual: New Brain Research Says

Per the recently released research paper, “SEEING AS UNDERSTANDING: The Importance of Visual Mathematics for our Brain and Learning,” the use of visual mathematics and the development of finger discrimination in students is vital for brain development and future mathematics success.  To download this paper, click here. The paper is authored by leading Stanford University mathematics researcher Dr. Jo Boaler and brain researcher Dr. Lang Chen.

“Our brains use visual pathways when we are learning math – our brains actually “see” a representation of fingers when we solve problems, whether or not we are actually using our fingers at the time, so training people on ways to perceive and represent their own fingers results in higher math achievement,” said co-author Dr. Jo Boaler, professor of mathematics education at Stanford Graduate School of Education and the co-founder of youcubed, a Stanford University center that provides research-based resources for teaching and learning mathematics. “Schools do not know about this important brain research and many schools even ban students from using fingers in classrooms.”

Because the research shows that everyone uses visual pathways when they work on mathematics, parents and teachers need to develop the visual areas of children’s brains. They can do this by:

  • Using visuals, manipulatives and motion in mathematics teaching and parenting
  • Providing opportunities for students to use drawing, visualizing or working with models in mathematics
  • Teaching algebra visually through pattern study and generalization
  • Asking students, at regular intervals, how they see mathematical ideas
  • Asking students to represent mathematical ideas in a multitude of ways, such as through pictures, models, graphs, even doodles or cartoons

“Visual mathematics helps students at any level formulate ideas and develop understanding,” said Dr. Boaler. “In fact, the quality of six-year-olds’ perception and representation of fingers has been found to be a better predictor of future mathematics success than performance on tests of cognition.”

In addition to dispelling common beliefs about how children and adults learn math, the paper provides resources for parents and teachers to help students strengthen visual pathways in their brains and achieve at higher levels in mathematics. These resources can be found here.

Interesting…..I think homeschoolers have always encouraged visual math!


About Dr. Jo Boaler

Dr. Jo Boaler is a professor of mathematics education at Stanford University and the co-founder of youcubed. She is also the author of the first MOOC on mathematics teaching and learning and the recipient of many awards, including the 2014 NCSM Equity Award. Dr. Boaler’s former roles have included being the Marie Curie Professor of Mathematics Education for Europe, a mathematics teacher in London comprehensive schools, and a researcher at King’s College, London University.

About Dr. Lang Chen

Dr. Lang Chen is a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at Stanford University. His research focuses on the development of knowledge representations, currently in math and language, in the brain.