From the Classroom to the Lab and Back: Instructional Strategies to Improve Children’s Early Math Skills

​From the Classroom to the Lab and Back is a collaboration between researchers, practitioners and curriculum developers to develop, validate, and disseminate instructional strategies that advance the early math skills of 3 to 5 year old preschool children, particularly those from low-SES backgrounds. The collaboration is grounded in research demonstrating that early mathematics skills predict later achievement in mathematics.  Research also demonstrates that children show marked differences in their mathematical knowledge at the start of school, differences often associated with socioeconomic status. Recent studies suggest that math-related interactions between adults and young children can substantially enhance the development of children’s mathematical thinking and that children from economically disadvantaged households can gain the most from high quality early childhood math programming.  However, most early childhood classrooms include little, if any, math talk or math instruction. 

This project seeks to change this state of affairs by clarifying instructional goals for early mathematics development in preschool settings.  Together, project researchers, practitioners, and curriculum developers are building instructional strategies for teaching preschoolers fundamental numerical and spatial skills and testing these strategies in the lab and classroom settings. Establishing number and spatial understanding is critical for all later math learning.  Number understanding undergoes substantial development in the preschool years and strong spatial thinking is critical for long-term achievement in mathematics and other STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines. In early numeracy, the project focuses on instructional strategies that build young children’s understanding of cardinal number (e.g., understanding that the number “three” represents sets of three items), the cardinal principle (i.e., understanding that the last number reached when counting a set represents the size of the whole set) and the successor function (i.e., understanding that for every number, the next number in the count list represents a set that is one larger). In geometry and spatial thinking, the project is developing instructional strategies for teaching children about shape categories and angles, as well as strategies that utilize technology to build children’s spatial visualization skills.

One of the ways in which the project gauges student learning is through a mathematics assessment for 3 to 5 year old preschool children being developed in a related project, Getting on Track Early for School Success. Once the assessment and our instructional strategies are fully developed, we will be able to 1) provide teachers with frequent, detailed information about individual children’s progress in acquiring fundamental math concepts and skills; and 2) support teachers in gaining an understanding of a) the critical mathematics content for young children, b) how learning within different content areas progresses from ages 3 to 5, and c) how to use specific instructional strategies and lessons to advance the acquisition of math skills and concepts.

Between 2011 and 2013, with funding from the McCormick Foundation and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Foundation, we:

  • Collaborated with teachers to explore ways to implement research findings in the classroom and create instructional activities
  • Developed and tested a specific learning activity designed to target the numerical skills of cardinality and the successor function and piloted the activity with approximately 300 preschool children
  • Developed a learning activity to promote understanding the attributes of a particular shape and piloted the activity with approximately 180 preschool children
  • Conducted a study to investigate the role of language in children’s misconceptions regarding early geometric concepts
  • Completed two pilot studies investigating the relative benefits of action vs. gesture as a way to improve mental rotation ability
  • Developed exemplar lessons for preschool teachers
In 2014 and 2015, From the Classroom to the Lab and Back is moving forward in several ways with funding from the McCormick Foundation:
  • Conducting new lab studies that test the strategies in new content areas
  • Identifying successful strategies, based on research and piloting outcomes, and incorporate them into prekindergarten and kindergarten math lessons
  • Beginning to merge our math strategies and our assessment work by linking the strategies and lessons to specific skills, thereby providing teachers with activities to advance the development of that skill

Upcoming Publications

  • Gibson, D. J., Congdon, E. L. & Levine, S. C. (in press). Effects of word-learning biases on children’s concept of angle. Child Development. 
  • Gunderson, E. A, Spaepen, E., Gibson, D., Goldin-Meadow, S., & Levine, S.C. (under review). Gesture as a window onto children’s number knowledge.
  • Gunderson, E.A., Spaepen, E., & Levine, S.C. (revise/resubmit). Approximate number word knowledge before the cardinal principle.

Project Team

Principal Investigator

  • Stephen Raudenbush, EdD, Professor, Department of Sociology and Chairman of the Committee on Education, University of Chicago

Co-Principal Investigators

  • Susan C. Levine, PhD, Professor, Departments of Comparative Human Development and Psychology and Chairman of the Committee, University of Chicago
  • Susan Goldin-Meadow, PhD, Professor, Departments of Comparative Human Development and Psychology and Chairman of the Committee, University of Chicago
  • Debbie Leslie, MAT, Associate Director for Direct Services, Center for Elementary Mathematics and Science Education (CEMSE), University of Chicago
  • Liesje Spaepen, PhD, Curriculum Developer, Center for Elementary Mathematics and Science Education (CEMSE), University of Chicago

Team Members

  • Dominic Gibson, Doctoral Candidate, Department of Psychology, University of Chicago
  • Elizabeth Gunderson, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, Temple University
  • Marc Hernandez, PhD, Senior Research Scientist, Academic Research Centers, NORC, University of Chicago
  • Raedy Ping, PhD, Postdoctoral Scholar, Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center, Department of Psychology, University of Chicago
  • Janet Sorkin, PhD, Senior Mathematics Assessment Development Associate, Committee on Education, University of Chicago


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