An SFU professor has created an app for iPads that allows young learners to use touch and gestures to explore math ideas and express their math understanding. (Adrian Bradshaw/EPA)

by Laura Sciarpelletti | CBC News

December 01, 2019

The secret to your child's math learning may be at their fingertips

SFU professor says iPad app helps children learn math in a tangible way

Does math make your child anxious? Do they think they're "bad at math?" They're not alone.

A Simon Fraser University professor says a growing number of children are struggling with the ability to apply simple mathematical concepts.

Now, Nathalie Sinclair, a professor of education at SFU, is literally taking a hands-on approach to mathematics learning for kids.

Sinclair and a small development team have created an app for iPads that allows young learners to use touch and gestures to explore math ideas and express their math understanding. The app is called TouchCounts. 

Sinclair says children's struggles with math are largely due to an inappropriate school focus on memorization and the use of mathematical calculation through computers. 

"When there's too much focus on memorization it makes it difficult for children to understand the concepts, and you need that in order to be able to use them somewhere else," Sinclair told Stephen Quinn, host of The Early Edition

She says current teaching methods diminish children's interest in the subject and can often cause anxiety that lasts throughout their schooling.

"It's the fear and anxiety that children start to develop by Grade 2 around being scared about mathematical symbols and of being able to get the right answer very quickly, which is usually the focus of instruction."

Digital math

Digital math, like TouchCounts, is a tangible learning experience for elementary students, says Sinclair. 

"Instead of focusing just on the symbols, we can focus on visual thinking, on haptic thinking, on auditory thinking ... and on bringing those capacities together for kids to get a deeper idea of mathematics."

Haptic thinking means being able to mentally grasp a virtual shape — for instance, a symbol on a screen — using touch.

Sinclair's research into digital math technology first began in 2010 when iPads were first released.

"That was really exciting because of this new possibility to really use touch, which hasn't really been used in the whole 3,000 year history of mathematics," said Sinclair. 

She says touch is closely related to how we think about counting, because when we count we usually point to objects. 

"So what if you could point, and when you point you actually touch your screen, and when you do that the screen tells you how many objects you've had, and not just tells you orally but gives you the symbol?"

This is what the TouchCounts app does. 

"The symbolic part of early numbers is very important ... kids love the symbols because what they really want to do is make 100. They get excited about making very big numbers because they want to see those very big symbols."

Sinclair says this curiosity creates both fun and meaningful learning. 

"I like to think of it as fun and hard at the same time."

TouchCounts is being used around the world and is available in English, French, Italian and German. Sinclair says more languages are on the way. 

"We've seen teachers say that they actually get to accomplish their math instruction much quicker because of the kinds of questions that the kids are coming up with," Sinclair said.

"But it's also an added part of the classroom. So as a teacher, you have to figure out how you're going to incorporate the iPads."

Listen to the full story here:

Canada Research Chair in Tangible Mathematics Learning Nathalie Sinclair speaks with Stephen Quinn about changing the way we learn arithmetic. 7:25

This article was published by CBC News  on December 1, 2019.