Nearly all kids learn how to count using their fingers. But as kids grow older and math problems become more advanced, the act of counting on fingers is often discouraged or seen as a less intelligent way to think. However, educators, parents and students who frown on kids for using their fingers may be cutting short a greater opportunity: the strengthening of brain networks.

Stanford professor Jo Boaler writes in The Atlantic about the neurological benefits of using fingers and how it can contribute to advanced thinking in higher math.

Stopping students from using their fingers when they count could, according to the new brain research, be akin to halting their mathematical development. Fingers are probably one of our most useful visual aids, and the finger area of our brain is used well into adulthood. The need for and importance of finger perception could even be the reason that pianists, and other musicians, often display higher mathematical understanding than people who don’t learn a musical instrument.

Boaler has developed research and curriculum to support a more engaging way to teach math by applying visual thinking, numeracy and growth mindset. Her program, YouCubed, at Stanford University, helps students and teachers get past roadblocks to learning math. Math anxiety has been well-documented as an obstruction to learning math. By drawing attention to these disparities and rethinking how math is taught, Boaler is creating a wider path for students, and adults, to develop a love of math.

It is hardly surprising that students so often feel that math is inaccessible and uninteresting when they are plunged into a world of abstraction and numbers in classrooms. Students are made to memorize math facts, and plough through worksheets of numbers, with few visual or creative representations of math, often because of policy directives and faulty curriculum guides. The Common Core standards for kindergarten through eighth grade pay more attention to visual work than many previous sets of learning benchmarks, but their high-school content commits teachers to numerical and abstract thinking. And where the Common Core does encourage visual work, it’s usually encouraged as a prelude to the development of abstract ideas rather than a tool for seeing and extending mathematical ideas and strengthening important brain networks.

Using Fingers to Count in Math Class Is Not ‘Babyish’

Evidence from brain science suggests that far from being “babyish,” the technique is essential for mathematical achievement. Please consider disabling it for our site, or supporting our work in one of these ways Subscribe Now > Stopping students from using their fingers when they count could, according to the new brain research, be akin to halting their mathematical development.

  • AMH4

    The theories about Math anxiety and including more visual, hands-on opportunities for students matches my beliefs completely. I don’t agree with supporting COUNTING on fingers as much as I support using fingers as a visual representation of numbers. As soon as students can see that one complete hand represents 5, then it follows easily that one hand plus one finger of the other hand shows 6. Students can build their visual image of each number related to 5 and to 10. As well, developing the concept of subitizing – identifying how much a number needs, to become 10, is what can be gained from the use of fingers in Math. Students benefit from the immediate use of their hands as number models.

  • sheltie1

    The title should say “their,” not “theirs.”

  • I think students should’t be stopped, I’d rather they’d be teached how to count in mind (for example, imagining fingers in mind).

    • orlfl456

      “Teached”?? Smh…

  • ajay

    Okay, but how long should it be encouraged and when is it a sign that other difficulties may be at hand?

  • chandru sharma

    Nowadays Students are changing in their education activities and also doing maths but some of the child are doing the same, but it is not a problem.should Encourage them to enhance their career

    Chandru From Edubilla – Global Education portal

  • waraji

    When a person starts not needing a visual aid anymore, they taper off on
    their own. It’s that simple. I say let people count on their fingers
    through high school, college and adulthood if it helps them.
    Who knows, later in life, each finger might be representing a whole process rather than a digit.

  • Sam

    Counting on fingers isn’t bad but it is slow. It some point the kid should be able to remember stuff.

  • Jim Krugh

    Because we have been doing it forever?

  • Rosemary

    Human beings are literally born with a built-in calculator for Base 10 math, and it’s their fingers.

    It’s ridiculous to encourage people to stop using a tool that is so damn handy. :p

    • The Count

      A handy tool that goes all the way to ten?

  • Kelly egaas

    I do t think people discourage the finger counting to stop their development, it is just a bigger issue that people struggle so mightlity so move past that stage of development. Counting on you fingers is a sign of where you are at with your ability to visualize the numbers in your head. I just sat through a student lead conference with my kindergartener yesterday and saw some awesome strategies to help her visualize the numbers in her head and really get more fluent at arithmetic. I was amazed. I did not learn math that way, and it was so exciting to see how much my daughter really understood numbers.

  • Whew!!! I can now come out of the finger counting closet!! 🙂

  • mildmannered

    If fingers help, who cares? I’m middle aged and have a master’s degree and use my fingers occasionally to figure calendar dates. Why does anyone feel the need to be judgmental?

    • Lisa

      Calendar dates have always been my bugaboo! That’s the only time I need to use my fingers…

  • Susan Hipko Everett

    WOW my daughter has poor short term working number memory. She has a hard time remembering math facts. She uses her fingers like an abacus. She is in 10th grade and still uses her fingers. She does it so quickly it’s really amazing to watch. She definitely is proving your research correct because currently she has a 97% average in Geometry and a 90% in Honors Chemistry.. She has no problem with complex math.

  • CC

    As a parent of three elementary school children I have seen the shift in math teaching paradigms to emphasize how to find an answer instead of rote memorization of facts. I encourage my kids to figure out the answers themselves whether that involves drawing dots, shapes or using things at home to count. There is no reason why they shouldn’t use their fingers if it helps them understand the problem and learn to solve it themselves.

  • Steph

    I completely agree that children need to return to old practices to solidify basic math skills….that is how our brain is wired and responds to for long lasting retention of facts!

    • JB

      I agree. In order to hardwire facts into the brain, sometimes it takes quick visuals to support learning and for some kids understanding is solidified once problem solving is understood and well grounded by basic fact finding procedures.

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  • The Count

    Yeah right. That’s like saying we should continue to crawl instead of walk because we are missing out on an opportunity to strengthen our relationship with gravity. Adults who count on their fingers absolutely are less intelligent than those who can calculate without.

  • The Count

    Yeah right. Whenever I see an adult counting with their fingers, I immediately feel compassion for them. If you can’t even calculate small numbers in your head, then life must be entirely challenging. I want to hug them but I’m rarely wearing pants.

  • The Count

    Whenever I see an adult counting with their fingers, I immediately feel compassion for them. If you can’t calculate small numbers in your head, then life must be entirely challenging.

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