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Adding + It Up: Helping Children Learn Mathematics
In addition to the concepts and skills that underlie mathematical proficiency, children who are successful in mathematics have a set of attitudes and beliefs that support their learning. They see mathematics as a meaningful, interesting, and worthwhile activity; believe that they are capable of learning it; and are motivated to put in the effort required to learn. Reports on the attitudes of preschoolers toward learning in general and learning mathematics in particular suggest that most children enter school eager to become competent at mathematics. In a survey that examined a number of personality and motivational features relevant to success in mathematics, teachers and parents reported that kindergarteners have high levels of persistence and eagerness to learn (although teachers differed in their perceptions of children from different ethnic groups, as we discuss below).41 Children enter school viewing mathematics as important and themselves as being competent to master it. In one study, first graders rated their interest in mathematics on average at approximately 6 on a scale from 1 to 7 (with 7 being the highest).42 Children gave similar ratings to their competence in mathematics, with boys giving somewhat higher ratings for their mathematics competence than girls did, the opposite of the pattern for reading.
One important factor in attaining a productive disposition toward mathematics and maintaining the motivation required to learn it is the extent to which children perceive achievement as the product of effort as opposed to fixed ability. Extensive research in the learning of mathematics and other domains has shown that children who attribute success to a relatively fixed ability are likely to approach new tasks with a performance rather than a learning orientation, which causes them to show less interest in putting themselves in challenging situations that result in them (at least initially) performing poorly.43 Preschoolers generally enter school with a learning orientation, but already by first grade a sizable minority react to criticism of their performance by inferring that they are not smart rather than that they just need to work harder.44
Most preschoolers enter school interested in mathematics and motivated to learn it. The challenge to parents and educators is to help them maintain a productive disposition toward mathematics as they develop the other strands of their mathematical proficiency.