We are all born with mathematical abilities

We are all born with mathematical abilities

Kristy vanMarle knew she wanted to go to grad school for psychology as an undergraduate at the University of Arizona, but she wasn’t sure which lab to join. Then she spotted a leaflet that said, “Did you know babies can count?”

“I thought, No way. “Babies probably can’t count, and they certainly don’t count the way we do,” she adds. But the seed was sown, and vanMarle began her research. Karen Wynn, the creator of that flyer, became her mentor, and they have subsequently co-published numerous research together.

I met with vanMarle, an associate professor at the University of Missouri whose study focuses on children’s early cognitive development, to find out what she’s been up to lately. The interview that follows has been trimmed and condensed.

So, what’s the big deal about being born mathematicians?

My group is particularly interested in numerical development and object comprehension – how the early number abilities of young children, potentially even newborns, are built upon to acquire a uniquely human aptitude for symbolic maths.

The origins of those traits and capabilities appear to be evolutionary antiquity and shared by most other animals.

In other words, we, like practically every other species, have evolved to understand mathematics. How did you get interested in this?

I’ve always been interested by the concept that you may have this sophisticated information — or at least the underpinnings of it — in place really early on. And we now know that it is widespread across animal species. Fish are as different from humans as they come: Guppies are highly sensitive to numbers in their surroundings. Of course, primates are. Salamanders. Various insects. This fundamental capacity aids animals in navigating their surroundings. I mean physically explore the surroundings by calculating angles, distances, and so forth. If they have to select between two quantities, it helps them choose the larger amount of food. It appears frequently in foraging scenarios.

So I’ve been interested in how these early talents could offer a framework for these much more advanced abilities that people comprehend relatively universally. All humans will learn to count and do maths if they are exposed to it. We all go through it, some more readily than others. However, the capacity is undeniably available.

What has been the emphasis of your most recent research?

Literacy in numbers and maths is becoming increasingly vital in modern culture, maybe even more so than literacy, which has been the focus of numerous educational endeavours for many years.

We now know that numeracy at the conclusion of high school is a very strong and crucial predictor of an individual’s economic and career success. We also know from several research, like those performed by my MU colleague David Geary, that children who start school below their classmates in maths tend to stay behind. And the disparity grows worse as they progress through school.

Our initiative is attempting to identify early indicators that will alert us to who may be at danger of falling behind their peers when they attend kindergarten. We’re taking what we know and going back a few steps to see if we can identify kids at risk in the hopes of developing treatments that can catch them up before school starts and set them on a lot more favourable path.

How do you study something like that?

We tracked children through two years of preschool and examined a wide variety of mathematical skills. Because math accomplishment and number understanding are not a separate concept.

We assigned them 12 different assignments twice a year for two years of preschool. Some were symbolic, such as being able to recite the Arabic numbers or the vocal count list. Others were using these early, nascent non-symbolic skills: estimating which of two groups of dots is larger, keeping track of additions and subtractions in the surroundings. Such abilities are based on evolutionarily ancient basic talents.

So, which of them genuinely predicts maths achievement?

One or two of the 12 diverse talents are crucial. When we followed up with these kids in kindergarten and first grade, we discovered that their capacity to estimate amounts – this ancient talent — appears to be quite essential. And also their capacity to participate in cardinal reasoning, which is understanding that the number three — whether you read it on a page or hear someone say “three” — signifies exactly three, which is at the foundation of our ability to count.

This cardinality, in particular, appears to be the most essential talent that we can test at a very young age and then predict whether children would succeed in a much larger examination of maths competence when they begin kindergarten.

Will this have an impact on what children learn in preschool?

We hope so. When you look at preschool curriculum — kids who are getting formal math teaching early on — you can see how they are attempting to tap into these various talents. But, when you have a lot of different subjects to teach, you don’t go into detail with them, right? You’re just attempting to cover all of them at once.

Our research suggests that focusing on these key abilities that appear to matter the most for building symbolic knowledge may be more successful for early schooling. We’re now doing a pilot research on an intervention that addresses this skill.

What does that intervention look like?

Children count and make sets. We count things using ice cube trays. ‘Can you fit six items into this tray?’ we ask. Then we point out when they make mistakes and strive to reinforce rules in a very participatory manner.

Is it working?

It’s too early to tell. We are now entering and analysing data, therefore I don’t have the punchline for you. However, we are hoping that it will be effective.

It’s the type of thing that parents and early educators can do with their children. It is also feasible to design an app that allows children to create sets on an iPad. Of course, that’s a long way down the road for us. But that’s where we’re heading — obtaining an intervention that works. We know how to identify which children are at risk, so the next natural step is to figure out how to assist them.

According to your findings, parents are not engaging their children in number learning at home nearly enough. What should parents do?

There are several opportunities (no pun intended) to point out numbers to your child. When you give them two crackers, you may set them on the table and count them (“one, two!” “two cookies!”) as they observe. That basic interaction reinforces two of the most essential counting rules: one-to-one correspondence (labelling each item precisely once, maybe pointing as you do) and cardinality (in this example, repeating the last number to indicate it stands for the entire number in the collection). Parents can also engage their children by asking them to assess the ordinality of numbers: “I have two crackers and you have three!” Who has more, you or I?”

Cooking is another popular activity in which youngsters are introduced to quantities and the connections between amounts.

I believe that everyday occurrences provide parents with numerous opportunities to assist their children understand the meanings of numbers and the relationships between numbers.


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