A recent study sheds light on possible ways to improve children’s mathematical abilities based on babies’ instinctive sense of number.
According to the new research from the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, babies who are better at telling the difference between large and small groups of items are more likely to demonstrate a better understanding of math in the future. The paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last Monday, suggested that infants’ innate number sense is predicative of their later math achievements. If educators can develop ways to improve number sense at this age, it might improve their future math skills.
“We wanted to understand where mathematical cognition comes from,” said Elizabeth Brannon, a psychology and neuroscience professor and an author on the study. “One of the unique aspects of humanity is the ability for mathematics. We don’t see monkeys and trees do calculus.”
Previous studies suggested that general sense of quantity correlates with standardized math scores. The goal of this research is to understand the directionality of this relationship, said Ariel Starr, an author of the study and graduate student in the department of psychology and neuroscience.
“Maybe you could have a better number sense, and it’s easier to learn math. Or maybe if you are more exposed to math, that sharpens your number sense.” she said.
To investigate whether number sense influences ability to learn math, researchers decided to look at babies with no knowledge of number words. They devised a longitudinal study that tracked 48 infants from the age of 6 months.
In order to test babies’ innate number sense, the researchers used a change detection task to look at how sensitive infants are to changes in number. Babies are presented with two screens, one showing 10 dots and the other switching between 10 and 20 dots.
Because babies, like anyone else, like to look at things that are novel and changing, if they pick up that one side is changing in number, they will spend longer looking at this number-changing side, Starr said.
“We found that the babies looked at both, and then they really lock in on the side that is changing between 10 and 20 dots because that changing number is really exciting for them,” she added.
At the age of 3.5 the babies’ math ability and general IQ were assessed using standardized tests, Brannon said.
It was discovered that the babies who spend more time looking at the number-changing screen displayed higher standardized math scores 3.5 years later, suggesting that number sense in infancy predicts math ability in early childhood. But babies’ innate number sense was not found to predict their IQ scores.
“So it wasn’t just that smarter babies are better at math,” Starr noted. “It’s the babies who are better at this specific type of task that show greater math achievements.”
When babies with a better number sense get older, it is easier for them to connect number words with quantities, and then to manipulate them to do arithmetic calculations, Starr said.
So far the researchers have been following the same children for 4.5 years and are currently exploring other factors that play into math achievements, including working memory, educational exposure, demographic and socioeconomic factors.
This research has important implications for education, said Melissa Libertus, an author of the study and assistant professor in the department of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh. She noted that this study opens up the possibility of training children’s approximate number sense early on with the hope of improving their math abilities down the road.
Starr also noted the possibilities for improving math skills starting at infancy.
“With preschoolers, they can’t just get better at math by practicing math,” Starr said. “Maybe they can do games that are designed to work on their number system that can improve their math scores."
Brannon added that they are now working on a study with local preschools where they have children play arithmetic games to see if that helps their math performance.
The research is definitely not deterministic or diagnostic, Starr emphasized. She noted that number sense is not the only predictor of math achievements and serves as a building block for symbolic math.
“It is definitely not the case that I can look at a baby and watch it watch some dots and predict its SAT score,” she said. “If you have a poor sense of number at infancy, you are by no means just doomed to struggle at math.”