Should We Encourage Young Children to Use Their Fingers When Doing Math?

I was recently reminded of an article written by Boaler and Chen a couple of years ago on why math teachers should encourage their young students to use their fingers while I was browsing through Facebook.  These authors were apparently drawing their conclusion from a study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology  by Berteletti and Booth. Unfortunately, this article is an excellent example of how the public can be misinformed by not reading properly the research article. In fact, one sentence in the summary of the research article should have forced Boaler and Chen to be more thoughtful before they write scientific findings for public consumption. Here is the sentence: "Interestingly, better performance in subtraction problems was associated with lower activation in the finger somatosensory area."

And here is the graph:

Above copied from
Frontiers in Psychology

What is shown above is how much a certain region in the brain is activated, specifically the somatosensory region (an area in the brain that is known to be related to our fingers), while doing arithmetic operations. This is done through functional magnetic resonance imaging, which allows scientists to see how brain activity correlates with a particular task a subject is doing. The task in this research is doing arithmetic operations. In some of the students in this study, this region does get activated. However, the amount of activation negatively correlates with performance. This is what the above graph is showing. Obviously, using one's fingers (if this is what the activation on the somatosensory region is implying), correlates with poorer performance in subtraction.

Nonetheless, what we need to keep reminding ourselves is that neuroscience is very much an evolving field of study. Saying that activity in the somatosensory region is directly linked to the use of the fingers while doing an arithmetic task is in fact already a big jump that is not supported by evidence.

Learning mathematics is indeed a step by step process and we begin by seeing numbers with visual aids. Our fingers can definitely help us visualize especially the single digits up to number ten. Saying that it is a must to learn arithmetic through fingers is not supported by the work of Berteletti and Booth.


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