Hold Off On Teaching Math Until After Sixth Grade?! Old Research Revisited

More than 85 years ago, Louis P. Benezet, superintendent of the Manchester, New Hampshire, schools, conducted research that resulted in his suggestion that math should not be formally taught during elementary school years. After he conducted his study on actual students, he concluded that delaying math instruction for the first six years of schooling would benefit children.

He wrote about delaying math with confidence, and his work was published in the Journal of the National Education Association.

“What possible needs has a ten-year-old child for knowledge of long division? The whole subject of arithmetic could be postponed until the seventh year of school, and it could be mastered in two years’ study by any normal child.”

While developing his theory of the benefits of delaying math, the superintendent spoke about math concepts with eighth-graders. He found they couldn’t explain even simple mathematical logic. Benezet blamed this difficulty on math being formally taught “too early.” That’s when the superintendent began his experiment. He removed math instruction for a test group of children through sixth grade.

“In the fall of 1929 I made up my mind to try the experiment of abandoning all formal instruction in arithmetic below the seventh grade and concentrating on teaching the children to read, to reason, and to recite — my new Three R’s. And by reciting I did not mean giving back, verbatim, the words of the teacher or of the textbook. I meant speaking the English language.”

In his student experiment, the test children only experience naturally occurring math like money, dates, and time. They simply played games that involved numbers and when more complicated ideas such as fractions came up, they were discussed naturally. The children that acted as the control for the experiment were taught math formally, as it was traditionally taught. After the first year of no formal math instruction, he tested math skills and the students who had no formal math instruction reasoned through their answers and were able to present more accurate answers than the formally-taught children.

“For some years I had noted that the effect of the early introduction of arithmetic had been to dull and almost chloroform the child’s reasoning faculties.”

This very old research into delayed math instruction has resurfaced.

“Many years ago the government in England were disappointed by math results. They doubled the amount of the school day spent on math (and cut time spent on arts subjects). Math results continued to drop. So they increased the time again. Results continued to drop. And so it went on and on,” reads the text of an article published this week in Psychology Today. “The only result was that they increased the level of boredom in children. They also had to cut down the amount of time spent on the subjects that children enjoyed. This attitude is echoed across the Western world.”

The new Common Core math teaches concepts and reasoning skills more than memorization. However, even Common Core math is still taught in a formal way, complete with formal standardized testing.

Parents and caregivers: If a research experiment like this occurred today, would you prefer that your child participate in the test group and skip all formal math lessons until seventh grade, or for your child to stick with a traditional math curriculum?

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