Preservice teachers taking a math ed class will be be asked to find picture books that portray shapes in inaccurate or misleading ways. These picture books don't necessarily have to be books intentionally written to introduce or teach children about shapes, because shapes are slipped into picture book pages very naturally. The problem is that the way that many shapes are treated gives children inaccurate, false, or at best misleading information about the geometric properties of shapes.
Why is this an issue? One reason is how hard it is to correct false notions in later years. Research has shown that once children's minds establish foundational concepts about shapes (and other basic foundational mathematical knowledge, like counting), it is extremely difficult to correct those notions later, when they encounter more structured geometry lessons in their schooling.
An analysis of picture books with shapes over the last 50 years shows that the same inaccurate and misleading information is being created and published and consumed, over and over again. Whether it's picture book writers, illustrators, editors, publishers, teachers, librarians, parents or other care givers and story tellers, we have been participating in this cycle for many years.
Today's adults continue to perpetuate these issues. Recent Early Childhood research contradicts traditional research conclusions that children cannot and therefore should not be bothered with accurate geometric terms and other concepts. Today's research shows that young children can deal with abstract geometric notions of shapes, that their brains are even naturally capable of the cognition necessary to identify, reason and recognize geometric definitions and shapes. The implications are clear that children who start off with unnecessarily simplified content in picture books, entertainment shows or video games are actually hindered later in their schooling. It's hard to change fundamental mathematical notions once they've been set. It obstructs learning.
What can be done? Education, of course. Preservice teachers in math ed classes like this need to understand the implications on a grander scale. It's easy to dismiss content in picture books because, well, they're "just picture books" but once you read the research, the situation becomes clear. It matters! Start children off with accuracy when it comes to mathematical notions in picture books. Use examples as teaching moments and class discussions so that children become more information literate, able to recognize false or misleading examples, understand why, and even show how they would correct the content.
Authors, illustrators, editors, publishers, book reviewers have an immense role to play, but since most of today's books on shapes still contain inaccurate and misleading information, it's up to the rest of us to be aware and do what we can to make sure that children are aware too!
For more reading:
Hachley, A. (2013). The Early childhood mathematics education revolution. Early Education and Development, 24, 419-430.
Hachley, A. (2015). Introduction to the special issue on Early Childhood Mathematics Education. Early Education and Development, 26. 315-318.
Mack, N. (2007). Gaining insights into children’s geometric knowledge. Teaching Children Mathematics, 14(4), 238-245.
Marston, J. (2014). Identifying and using picture books with quality mathematical content: Moving beyond “Counting on Frank” and “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”. Australian Primary Mathematics Classroom, 19(1), 14.
Nurnberg-Haag, J. (2017). A Cautionary tale: How children’s books (mis)teach shapes. Early Education and Development, 28(4), 415-440.
Nurnberg-Haag, J. (2018). Follow the signs to promote accurate geometric shape knowledge. Ohio Journal of School Mathematics, Fall 2018.
Russo, T. (2018). Narrative-first approach: Teaching mathematics through picture story books. Australian Primary Mathematics Classroom, 23(2), 8.