Math is innate

New theory argues against innate math skills

A new theory on how the brain initially learns basic math could transform ways of identifying and teaching students with math learning difficulties.

Research funded by the European Research Council (ERC) as part of the SMINC (Size Matters in Numerical Cognition) project and published in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences has revealed more knowledge about how, why and when people have everyday math skills acquire.

A widely accepted theory today claims that people are born with a "number sense," an innate ability to sense quantities such as the number of things in a shopping cart, and that this skill improves with age. Early math curricula and tools for diagnosing specific math learning difficulties, such as dyscalculia, are based on this consensus. Dyscalculia is a brain disorder that makes it difficult to understand numbers and math concepts.

"If we can only understand how the brain learns mathematics and how it understands numbers and more complex mathematical concepts that shape the world we live in, will we be able to teach mathematics in a more intuitive and enjoyable way," commented study author Dr. Tali Leibovich. "This study is the first step towards achieving this goal."

Specifically, the study, carried out in collaboration between researchers at Ben Gurion University in the Negev in Israel (BGU) and the University of Western Ontario in Canada, questions the prevailing theory of “number sense”. Other theories suggest that a "sense of magnitude" that enables people to distinguish between different "continuous quantities" such as the density of two groups of apples or the total area of ​​two pizza trays is even more basic and automatic than one Sense of numbers.

The research team argues here that understanding the relationship between size and number is critical to developing higher level math skills. By combining numbers and sizes (such as area, density, and perimeter), we can make faster and more rational decisions.

An example of this would be how to choose the fastest queue in the supermarket. While most people would intuitively stand behind someone with a less-filled shopping cart, a full-looking cart with fewer, larger items might be even faster. The researchers claim that the way we make these types of decisions reveals that people use the natural correlation between number and continuous orders of magnitude to compare orders of magnitude.

The team also urges that consideration be given to the role that other factors such as language and cognitive control play in acquiring numerical concepts. While the theoretical models presented in the paper may raise more questions than answers, the research team hopes that their hypothesis will open up new avenues for detecting dyscalculia, which can currently only be diagnosed in school children. In addition, at this stage children with the disorder have already lagged behind their peers. A diagnosis made as early as possible could result in appropriate support measures.

"This new approach will enable us to develop diagnostic tools that do not require formal mathematical knowledge, so that the diagnosis and treatment of dyscalculia can be done before school age," said Dr. Leibovich emphasizes.

The SMINC project operated by the BGU will end on schedule in August 2017 and has received a little over EUR 2.5 million in EU funding.

Further information can be found on the:
Project page on CORDIS

Last Date Modified: 2016-11-08 16:54:01