Mathematical cognition: Understanding how children acquire mathematical knowledge and skills

Author: Kakoma Luneta

Mathematics is mostly an abstract subject. In addition, it involves having to learn arithmetic and numerical rules that are often difficult for learners. In order to assist learners, educators need to understand mathematical cognition.  Mathematic cognition can be described as a mental activity that is complex; and is responsible for accomplishments such as identification of relevant quantities, codification of the quantities into representations, and mental comparisons and calculations.

A child’s brain alters during the learning period with the development of the frontal lobe, which is responsible for judgement, analysis, critical reasoning, cognition, and retention of long-term memories. These are the main drivers of mathematical cognition and knowledge acquisition. These alterations in the frontal lobe depend on the way the concepts are taught to the learner, resulting in positive or misaligned mathematical cognition.

This article discusses various research projects have been published on how children cognitively interact with mathematical information. It also investigates important knowledge bases that elementary mathematics teachers should possess in order to engage learners’ mathematical cognition at optimal levels.

Various studies have shown that the teacher’s knowledge, and how it is used in providing information to the learners, defines how mathematical cognitive structures are formed in the learners.

For example, the teacher needs to make use of the environment and relevant resources to create mathematical explorations and experiences for learners. These explorations and experiences form a basis for mathematical cognition.

In addition, children acquire a great deal of informal mathematical knowledge through play and ecological exposure. In addition, children will acquire greater mathematical cognition if the lessons provide concrete-based examples for abstract concepts, and the information is well-constructed.

For this to happen, teachers need to be confident in teaching mathematical concepts through active learning and awareness of learners’ pre-knowledge.  Misconceptions are formed by poorly developed cognitive structures that the learner forms due to mathematical knowledge and concepts being misrepresented.

Many studies have shown that the majority of elementary school teachers are uncomfortable teaching mathematic, and there is need to review the professional development programmes provided to them. The ‘what’ and ‘how’ of the content, pedagogy and pedagogical content knowledge provided to the elementary school teacher are crucial questions that must be examined

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