Teaching Kids Maths: Learnings from Indian Street Children

How to teach Kids Maths is a very interesting topic and an area of active research. A recent working paper[1] by a Research Centre affiliated with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has raised interesting questions on how we should be teaching mathematics to our children.

Amazing Practical Mathematical Skills of Indian Street Children!

The paper is based on an extensive survey of Indian working children belonging to low-income families. These are children who are employed in informal markets in the Kolkata region. They are employed in retail shops selling fruits, groceries, vegetables etc. The study found that these children could solve arithmetic problems and perform computations involving subtraction and division when the questions were posed to them as market transactions.

An example of a market transaction is as follows: How much should a customer totally pay for 500 Grams of Rice and 250 Grams of Sugar, if 1 Kg Rice Costs 40 Rupees and 1 Kg Sugar costs 20 Rupees? The results indicated a high degree of proficiency among our street children when it comes to basic arithmetic skills required for performing their job effectively.

Disconnect between School Methodology and Practical Life

But interestingly, most of these children were unable to solve similar problems when presented to them as typical arithmetic problems such as the ones used in schools. This finding indicates a huge gap in the ability of the children to apply their practical arithmetic skills for solving more abstract problems which are part of school curriculum. This finding raises interesting questions about how to teach kids maths. Do we need to re-think our approach to teaching mathematics to kids? Should we focus on making mathematics more relatable to our children by rooting our instruction in practical day to day events?

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Reason for this Disconnect

The paper goes on to analyse the possible reasons for this gap. It uses and builds on the work of various other researchers who have studied this phenomenon. The key finding is that children tend to develop their own ‘arithmetic systems’ which are very different from the strategies taught in schools[2]. ‘Arithmetic System’ means a set of number names (children could be using different names for numbers, such as 6 Apples could mean Half a Dozen in their mind) and strategies for performing arithmetic operations.In other words, these street children have developed their own ‘systems and techniques’ which serve them in their practical world of market transactions. And they are unable to realize the equivalence of their practical arithmetic system with the one being taught in schools. What is preventing these children from recognizing this? And what can be done to change this?

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How to Teach Kids Maths: Key Takeaway

While the above study was about street children, it would be a mistake to dismiss the findings as not being relevant to you or your child. At the root of the problem, we believe, is striking the right balance between practicality and abstraction while teaching mathematics to our kids. We will explore more on “how to teach kids maths” topic in our future series of articles to understand how we should be teaching maths to our kids.

  • A recent study shows that Indian street children (those working in shops or tea stalls) show a high level of expertise in solving arithmetic problems as part of their daily jobs.
  • But the same street children were unable to perform similar arithmetic problems which are part of school curriculum.
  • Why is it that a street child cannot apply his or her practical arithmetic skills to solve abstract problems which are part of school curriculum?
  • This blog explores such questions.
Research References

[2]Reed, H. J., & Lave, J. (1979). Arithmetic as a tool for investigating relations between culture and cognition. American Ethnologist, 6(3), 568-582

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