Everyone is born with mathematical abilities

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

«I thought to myself, No way. «Babies can’t count, and they certainly don’t count like we do,» she explains. But the seed was sown, and vanMarle began her academic journey. Karen Wynn, the person who created the flyer, became her mentor, and they have subsequently co-published numerous research together.

I recently chatted with vanMarle, an associate professor at the University of Missouri whose study focuses on children’s early cognitive development. The following interview has been trimmed and condensed.

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

My group is especially 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 such traits and capabilities appear to stem from an evolutionary ancient endowment that humans share with most other animals.

In other words, we, like practically every other species, have evolved to understand maths. What piqued your interest in this?

I’ve always been interested by the concept of having this sophisticated information — or at least the underpinnings of it — in place at a young age. And we now know that it is widespread across animal species. Fish are a species that is very different from humans: Guppies are highly sensitive to numbers in their surroundings. Primates, of course, are. Salamanders. Insects of several kinds. This fundamental capacity allows animals to navigate their surroundings. I mean physically navigating the world by calculating angles, distances, and so forth. If they have to select between two quantities of food, it helps them choose the larger amount. It frequently appears in foraging scenarios.

So I’ve been interested in how these early talents could serve as a basis for the much more advanced abilities that humans possess almost universally. All humans will learn maths and counting to some extent if they are exposed to it. We all feel this, some more easily than others. However, the capacity is unquestionably accessible.

What was the focus of your most recent study?

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

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

Our initiative is attempting to identify early indicators that will tell us who is 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 children at risk in order to develop treatments that will catch them up before they start school and put them on a lot more favourable path.

How do you research anything like that?

We tracked children for two years of preschool and examined a wide variety of quantitative skills. Because when it comes to math accomplishment and number understanding, it is not a singular construct.

We assigned them 12 different assignments over the course of two years of preschool, twice a year. Some were symbolic, such as the ability to recite Arabic numbers or the vocal count list. Others were tapping into 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 build on these evolutionarily ancient fundamental talents.

So, one of them predicts maths achievement?

There are just one or two talents that are important out of those twelve. When we followed up with these kids in kindergarten and first grade, we discovered that their capacity to estimate amounts – an old talent — was really essential. And also their capacity to participate in cardinal reasoning, which is understanding that the number three — whether you see it on a page or hear someone say «three» — signifies exactly three, which is fundamental to our ability to count.

This cardinality appears to be the most essential talent that we can test at a very early age and then predict whether children will succeed in a much larger examination of maths success when they attend kindergarten.

Will this affect what children learn in preschool?

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

Our research suggests that focusing on these key abilities that appear to be most important for building symbolic knowledge may be more successful for early schooling. We’re now doing a pilot research using an intervention aimed at improving this capacity.

What does that intervention entail?

Children can count and make sets. To count a certain number of things, we utilise ice cube trays. ‘Can you put six items into this tray?’ we ask. Then, very interactively, we point out where they make mistakes and try to reinforce rules.

Has it been successful?

It’s too soon to tell. Unfortunately, I don’t have the punchline for you because we are now inputting and analysing the data. However, we are optimistic that it will be effective.

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

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

There are several opportunities to point out numbers to your child (no pun intended). You may lay two crackers 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, sometimes pointing as you do) and cardinality (in this example, repeating the last number to indicate it represents the overall number in the collection). Parents can also include their children by asking them to determine the ordinality of numbers: «I’ve got two crackers and you’ve got three!» «Which of us has more, you or I?»

Cooking is another typical activity that exposes youngsters to numbers and the relationships between them.

I believe that everyday occurrences provide many chances for parents to assist their children understand the meanings of numbers and the relationships between numbers.


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