The performance of primary schools in developing countries is weak, especially for the poor. This can be partly attributed to initial differences, which are later magnified by the school system (Banerjee & Duflo, 2011). The massive expansion in school attendance in developing countries has not been matched by increases in school achievement for the poor. In India, 75% of children in grade five cannot perform simple arithmetic and 53% cannot read a grade-two level paragraph (ASER: Pratham, 2013). Because poor children have especially weak preparation for school but strong non-symbolic numerical and geometrical abilities (Spelke, 2011), preschool is a promising time to intervene, with little established curricula. Yet, there is little evidence on effective school-readiness curricula for poor children. Another window of opportunity is the early grades of primary school where laboratory experiments show synergistic effects between school math learning and activities that exercise early numerical abilities (Hyde et al., 2014). There is tremendous interest in the government of India to engage with that level.
In a previous project (“Does non-symbolic math practice in young children improve symbolic mathematics ability later in life? (A pilot study)”, COUHES #1212005420) funded by UBS Optimus Foundation, we developed and evaluated with a RCT run in over 200 preschools in the slums of New Delhi) game-based preschool curriculum designed to enhance children's core numerical and geometric abilities. The short run impact of the curriculum was extremely encouraging: A summary measure of mathematical ability increased by 0.23 standard deviations. Therefore we see that it is possible to significantly enhance preschool non-symbolic math skills in realistic field conditions through games inspired by research in psychology. We also detected improvements in spatial and numerical language. In contrast, children showed no gains in symbolic arithmetic abilities in the short run, perhaps because their formal education had not yet begun.
Can we improve further on these encouraging results, harnessing children’s innate capacities at the foundations of mathematics to give preschool children the skills and confidence to succeed in school? Can we extend our curriculum to enhance children's math learning in primary school? Finally, can we make our interventions “robust” enough to be implemented at scale in pre-schools and in the early grades of primary education?
While we are still tracking the intervention's longer run impact, these promising results encourage us to think about potential improvements to the curriculum to amplify its effectiveness, changes in its implementation so that the program can be scaled up, and expansion of its reach to enhance children's math learning in primary school. These aims motivate work in three directions:
(1) Designing and evaluating a modified curriculum, linking the non-symbolic games to the symbol systems of elementary school mathematics. A new RCT would test its effectiveness against both the original games and Pratham's standard preschool curriculum.
(2) Piloting scale-up avenues by which the games can be mainstreamed in Pratham preschools, in government child care centers, and in other settings.
(3) Piloting the modified math curriculum with primary school children, with the aim of preparing for a new RCT.