We're All Born with Math Skills

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

«No way,» I thought. Babies are unlikely to be able to count, and they certainly do not count in the same manner that we do,» she explains. But the seed was planted, and vanMarle began her studies. Karen Wynn, the creator of the flyer, became her mentor, and they have subsequently co-published numerous research together.

VanMarle, an associate professor at the University of Missouri whose research focuses on children’s early cognitive development, was interviewed to find out what she’s been up to lately. The following interview has been trimmed and shortened.

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

We are particularly interested in numerical development and object comprehension in my lab, specifically how the early number abilities of young children, potentially even newborns, are built upon to build a uniquely human aptitude for symbolic maths.

The origins of such traits and capabilities appear to derive from an evolutionary antiquity endowment that humans share with most other animals.

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

I’ve always been fascinated by the thought of having this sophisticated information — or at least the foundations of it — in place at such a young age. And we now know that it is widely distributed among animal species. Fish are a species that is quite different from humans: Guppies are highly sensitive to environmental numbers. Primates, of course. Salamanders. Insects of several types. This fundamental capacity enables animals to navigate their surroundings. Navigate the surroundings by calculating angles, distances, and so forth. If they have to select between two quantities of food, it helps them choose the larger one. It frequently appears in foraging situations.

As a result, I’ve been interested in how these early talents could serve as a basis for these much more advanced abilities that humans seem to understand very well. Everyone learns maths and counting to some extent if they are exposed to it. We all feel it, some more easily than others. However, the capacity is unquestionably present.

What was the topic of your most recent study?

Being numerate and mathematically literate is becoming increasingly vital in modern culture, possibly even more so than reading, which has been the focus of numerous educational endeavours for many years.

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

Our investigation is attempting to identify any early indicators that may 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 at-risk children 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 go about studying something like that?

We examined a wide range of mathematical skills throughout the course of two years of preschool. Because math performance and number understanding are not a lonely creation.

We offered them 12 different projects twice a year for two years of preschool. Some were symbolic, such as knowing how to recite Arabic numbers or a vocal count list. Others were utilising 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 evolutionarily ancient basic talents.

So, which of them genuinely predicts maths performance?

There are just one or two talents that are important out of the 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 crucial. And 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 human ability to count.

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

Will this influence what children learn in preschool?

We can only hope. When you look at preschool curriculum — children who receive systematic math teaching from an early age — you can see how they are attempting to tap into these various talents. But, when you’re attempting to educate a variety of topics, you don’t go into great detail, right? You’re simply attempting to cover all of them at once.

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

How does that intervention appear?

Children enjoy counting and making sets. To count things, we utilise ice cube trays. ‘Can you fit six items in this tray?’ we ask. Then we point out when they make mistakes and try to reinforce rules in an engaging manner.

Is it effective?

It is too soon to tell. We’re now entering and analysing data, so I’m afraid I don’t have the punchline for you. But we are optimistic that it will be successful.

This is something that parents and early educators can do with their children. It is even conceivable to develop an app that would allow children to construct sets on an iPad. Of course, that’s a long way off. But that’s where we’re going — obtaining a successful intervention. We know how to identify which children are at risk, so the next natural step is to find a method to assist them.

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

There are several opportunities to point out numbers to your child (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, maybe pointing as you do) and cardinality (in this example, repeating the last number to indicate it represents the overall number in the collection). Parents may also get their kids involved by asking them to determine the ordinality of numbers: «I’ve got two crackers, and you’ve got three!» «Do you have more than I do?»

Cooking is another popular activity in which youngsters may become acquainted with numbers and their relationships.

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


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