Mathematics is often described as the science of pattern. Through looking for, reasoning about, and describing numeric and geometric patterns, students come to realize that mathematics reflects order and predictability. This is a significant discovery because students who understand the power of patterns in math are more confident in their ability to do math. So when the Common Core State Standards first came out and I didn’t see a whole lot about pattern and patterning activities in the early years, I wondered why.
And I’ve been wondering why until recently when I read a fabulous article about teaching math. The article was an interview with Bethany Rittle-Johnson, a professor of psychology and human development at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. Her studies focus on early math and the importance of teaching young children about patterns. Here’s what she said about why pattern was not included in the standards:
“Patterns were mostly left out of the Common Core Math Standards in the early grades (kindergarten and 1st grade) due to a lack of evidence that they helped children understand later math concepts.”
But then she goes on to say that a lot of research since then proves that pattern should actually be included. I agree. In fact, I would argue that there had already been a lot of research underscoring the importance of teaching pattern in the early years yet for some reason, it was ignored.
Here’s why I think teaching pattern in those early years is important:
- The study of pattern is the foundation of mathematics. As I mentioned earlier, mathematics is described as the science of pattern.
- It is the thread that binds all parts of mathematics together.
- Discovering patterns makes life easier; patterns are predictable.*
- Searching for patterns trains the brain to look critically.
- Looking for patterns helps make connections between concepts in mathematics and other curricular areas.
- Looking for patterns helps encourage students to be persistent and better problem solvers – they know there is predictability in mathematics and that mathematics makes sense.
- Pattern can be used as a self-check device.
- Patterns help students when they begin to make generalizations about number.
* to predict is to use known information to predict unknown information
Now, to be fair, the CCSSM Mathematical Practices (MP7 and MP8) do mention looking for patterns. But pattern isn’t specifically called out in the content standards and I think that’s a mistake. The word ‘pattern’ needs to be a part of the mathematical vocabulary so much so that looking for patterns becomes a natural part of what students do in math class.
Let me give you some examples. All of the What Do You Notice? posters that I include in my Family Math Night events are perfect examples of looking for and describing patterns. What I love about these posters is that they can be accessed on a variety of levels but all of those levels require looking for patterns. In addition, some of the posters clearly show the connections between arithmetic and geometry making pattern the thread that binds all parts of mathematics together.
On a higher level, describing patterns helps lead us into making generalizations – the foundation for algebra. By making generalizations, math changes from isolated bits and pieces to an organized and much more manageable body of information. For example, through patterns, the numbers 1 through 100 are no longer 100 separate and isolated pieces of information to learn. Instead, students simply need to learn 1 – 20 and then each of the decade names.
So we need to be doing pattern-specific activities in those early years. Make AB patterns with teddy bears. Sort blocks into different categories. And always, always, always use the word ‘pattern’ when describing math.
By the way, I feel so strongly about pattern in the early grades that we devoted a station in our Nifty Numbers kit to it. It’s important. Without pattern, math simply does not exist.