Study: If You Want Math and Reading Success, Teach Planning Skills

The Tower of Hanoi via Flickr/lilszeto
The Tower of Hanoi via Flickr/lilszeto

It’s no great revelation that poverty is a vicious cycle: children from low-income families are likely to under-perform in school, leading to low-paying jobs as adults and the cycle continues. This school under-achievement in particular shows up early — even at the first tests in kindergarten, kids from low-income families as a whole test lower than their high socioeconomic-status peers. A study scheduled for publication in the journal Child Development shows why — blame kids’ planning skills, a strong component of the all-important “executive function” that’s gotten so much attention lately. And the study implies that by intervening specifically in low-income kids’ abilities to plan ahead, teachers, parents and policy makers could offer an alternative to the poverty cycle.

Executive function is the ability to work toward a future of your design — the mishmash of working memory, attention, inhibition and planning. Together these executive function skills mean you’re not bound by the whims of the present and can instead do what will be best in hindsight. It lets you do things that are hard or uncomfortable because you know they’ll pay off in the long run. People with strong executive function stay in school, they avoid addictions, they study and get good grades, and — famously — they avoid gobbling marshmallows immediately when waiting would earn them more.

This study looked inside executive function at the component of planning. Remember the Tower of Hanoi — those colored wooden rings that instead of moving post-to-post as the game designers intended, you rolled down stairs, tied to helium balloons and gave to your younger siblings to chew on? Well, the Tower of Hanoi is now the standard psychological testing tool for kids’ planning skills. The reason is that in order to move the discs from the starting pole to the ending pole without ever placing a larger disc on top of a smaller one, you have to momentarily move away from your goal so that you can eventually move toward it. If you keep doing what seems best in the moment, you’re sunk. You have to plan ahead to see how a couple moves down the line, moving back will let you move forward.

It’s like school, or addictions, or marshmallows: the Tower of Hanoi takes planning to see that what’s good now isn’t best later.

The current study started in 1991. Researchers from the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development enrolled 1,364 newborns in the study and started watching things like whether mothers worked or were in school, kids’ IQs, and families’ income-to-need ratio — a measure of socioeconomic status. In third grade, researchers hit kids with the Tower of Hanoi, you know, in a psychological testing kind of way. Then in fifth grade, researchers tested kids’ reading and math abilities.

As you’d expect and as has been found over and over again, kids from lower socioeconomic status households had lower math and reading scores in fifth grade. But almost the entire effect was explained by the Tower of Hanoi task. Kids who had strong Tower of Hanoi skills in third grade had strong math and (to a lesser degree) reading skills in fifth grade — irrespective of socioeconomic status!

Sure, there are a lot of things that have to go right in a young child’s life in order for them to develop these planning skills — maybe good parenting or good genetics or Mercury in retrograde during their birth, or whatever. But the study implies that no matter the elements of past and personality a child brings to school, training this ability to plan ahead may be able to reset kids on the path of academic success that eventually leads to better jobs and a higher income-to-needs ratio in the next generation.

In short, it looks like focused intervention to train planning skills in young kids would be a darn good place to start breaking the poverty cycle.

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2 thoughts on “Study: If You Want Math and Reading Success, Teach Planning Skills

  1. I find it interesting that socioeconomics comes into play when it comes to studying. Do you feel that in poor neighborhoods that studying isn’t taught as much because they are concern with testing and rote memory and having kids pass instead of learn?

  2. Really interesting read! One positive thing I’ve seen to do with kid’s planning skills are some of the newer kid’s apps. A great example is Bound Round, where kids can plan trips and choose activities to do in new cities–keeping them excited for future trips while teaching them the importance of waiting and planning. Schools are incorporating apps in the classroom more and more, so hopefully more kids can utilise this in the future.

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