Re-Thinking ‘Normal’ Development in the Early Learning of Number


  • Alf Coles
  • Nathalie Sinclair


In this article we suggest that, notwithstanding noted differences, one unmarked similarity across psychology and mathematics education is the continued dominance of the view that there is a ‘normal’ path of development. We focus particularly on the case of the early learning of number and point to evidence that puts into question the dominant narrative of how number sense develops through the concrete and the cardinal. Recent neuroscience findings have raised the potential significance of ordinal approaches to learning number, which in privileging the symbolic—and hence the abstract—reverse one aspect of the ‘normal’ development order. We draw on empirical evidence to suggest that what children can do, and in what order, is sensitive to, among other things, the curriculum approach—and also the tools they have at their disposition. We draw out implications from our work for curriculum organisation in the early years of schooling, to disrupt taken-for-granted paths.