October 23, 2013
Infant’s Sense Of Numbers Predicts Math Skills
Alan McStravick for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
In Dustin Hoffman’s Academy Award winning performance in the movie Rain Man, the toothpick scene stands out as a defining moment in the movie. In it, a box of toothpicks is dropped on the floor and his character immediately recognizes that there are 246 toothpicks on the ground. That ability, while extremely exaggerated in this example, is apparently innate in infants in a more basic form and is the subject of study at the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences in Durham, North Carolina.
According to the research team, whose findings were published online earlier this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the ability of infants to differentiate between large and small groups of items is likely a predictor of their skill in maths as they age.
Humans are a unique species when it comes to our understanding of numbers and how we represent them. Our use of Arabic numerals sets us apart from all other life forms. However, our ability to use and recognize those numerals is not with us at birth. It is a skill that must be taught over time. Prior to this study, it was believed the rudimentary sense of numbers in infants was the basis for understanding higher-level math.
"When children are acquiring the symbolic system for representing numbers and learning about math in school, they're tapping into this primitive number sense," said Elizabeth Brannon, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience, who led the study. "It's the conceptual building block upon which mathematical ability is built."
An example of Brannon’s 'primitive number sense' is best observed when presenting an infant with two collections of objects. Even an infant with no verbal communication abilities or understanding of Arabic numerals will be able to recognize which set is numerically larger, just as a more mature human can instinctively know that a collection of 15 strawberries is greater than six oranges at a glance.
Brannon’s colleague, Duke psychology and neuroscience graduate student Ariel Starr, says the work they are doing could ultimately revolutionize how math subjects are taught due to development of new education strategies based on a more complete understanding of how infants and young children are able to conceptualize and understand numbers. More specifically, Starr believes these new strategies will help intervene on behalf of those students who are experiencing difficulty learning mathematics symbols and basic methodologies.
The team began their study, focusing on 48 six-month-old infants and their ability to recognize numerical changes. Each infant was placed in front of two screens. The first screen always showed the same number of dots, though they would change in both size and position on the screen. The second screen switched between two different numerical values. Brannon and Starr were able to determine that those infants able to tell the difference between the two numerical values (8 and 16) tended to look longer at the numerically changing screen.
The second part of the study commenced three years later with the same 48 children, then aged three and a half. Each child was shown two different arrays and asked to choose which one had the greater number of dots without counting them. Also, each child was administered a standardized math test meant for children of pre-school age as well as a standardized IQ test. The last task the children were asked to perform was verbal. Each child was asked to identify the largest number word they could concretely understand.
"We found that infants with higher preference scores for looking at the numerically changing screen had better primitive number sense three years later compared to those infants with lower scores," Starr said. "Likewise, children with higher scores in infancy performed better on standardized math tests."
Adding to Starr’s comments, Brannon noted their findings definitively show a real connection between symbolic math and quantitative abilities and how they are innate, even in infancy before formalized education begins to shape our mathematical abilities.
"Our study shows that infant number sense is a predictor of symbolic math," Brannon said. "We believe that when children learn the meaning of number words and symbols, they're likely mapping those meanings onto pre-verbal representations of numbers that they already have in infancy," she said.
"We can't measure a baby's number sense ability at 6 months and know how they'll do on their SATs," Brannon added. "In fact our infant task only explains a small percentage of the variance in young children's math performance. But our findings suggest that there is cognitive overlap between primitive number sense and symbolic math. These are fundamental building blocks."
Grant funding for this study was provided by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF) Research and Evaluation on Education in Science Engineering and Developmental and Learning Sciences, a James McDonnell Scholar Award and a National Science Foundation graduate research fellowship.