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Ginsburg Delivers the Jacob H. Schiff Professor of Psychology and Education Lecture

In his inaugural lecture as the Jacob H. Schiff Foundation Professor of Psychology and Education, Herbert Ginsburg shared some observations from his latest project--studying the learning behavior of preschool children.

In the endowment description of the person to be named the Jacob H. Schiff Professor, it specifies someone who is focused on social improvement and education of the public and who is engaged in practical research on critical issues of education and advancement of pedagogy.

Professor Ginsburg's research for the past 30 years focuses on cognitive development, with an emphasis on the development of children's mathematical thinking, in the United States and other cultures worldwide. He has developed video workshops for teachers on children's learning of mathematics, and has developed tests of mathematical thinking and assessment of children's mathematical knowledge.

His latest project is a study to find ways to improve education for preschool children. Professor Ginsburg said. "We need to educate them in two ways: Promote their current intellectual development and prepare them for schooling so they can succeed in academic work."

As part of his lecture, Professor Ginsburg shared some of this research with the audience, by presenting videotape segments illustrating how attentive and enthusiastic preschool children can be when permitted the freedom to explore ideas on their own. "Under the right conditions," Ginsburg noted, "young children are motivated to deal with tasks and have an attention span longer than attributed to them. Intellectual work is a social event for kids."

In an attempt to find out how interests and abilities emerge in daycare and preschool situations and how to foster this growth, particularly in low-income children, Ginsburg's research included observing classrooms of African-American and Latino low-income children and conducting workshops with their parents and teachers. Researchers played with and interviewed the children, and videotaped them to demonstrate their mathematical abilities. Ginsburg shared some of these taped sessions with his audience.

The videotapes revealed that young children were able to conduct experiments and share that knowledge with others, to plan the design and estimate materials necessary to build a structure, and to create complex rhythms in repeating sequences.

"Before entering school, children all over the world, literate and illiterate, develop concepts like these," Ginsburg said. "Key aspects of early everyday math may well be universal."

While his research has yet to answer questions of how typical these activities are and whether these activities differ from those performed by middle-class children, Ginsburg says several discoveries have been made.

"Expectations are very low now," he said. "Children are ready for far more than the current American kindergarten curriculum offers. We need to create challenging curriculum for them." He notes that for poor disadvantaged children, early success may convince adults that there is no excuse for failing to educate them.

The research also suggests that activities should go along with personal interests. The children need help to elaborate on their everyday knowledge and to make that knowledge explicit. Teachers need to learn how the questions children ask can be approached in an organized fashion.

Although free-play is not sufficient to help preschool children learn, teaching with workbooks is not the way to go either, Ginsburg stresses. "Children need adult assistance to generalize their ideas, to become conscious of them and communicate them," he said.

He concluded his presentation with a demonstration of a computer program designed to allow children the ability to explore math in many ways and to see what very large numbers look like.

The program can count to two billion, and works on their ability to see what the numeral looks like, how many items make up that number, and how to sort those items into groups of ones, tens, one hundreds, and more.

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