Many Preschoolers Already Know Their Xs And Ys: Study
March 6, 2014

Many Preschoolers Already Know Their Xs And Ys: Study

[ Watch the Video: Are You Smarter Than A Five-Year-Old? Preschoolers Can Do Algebra ]

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

It may not seem intuitive, but basic algebra skills come naturally to most children – according to a new study in the journal Developmental Science.

In case you forgot, or never learned, algebra is a branch of mathematics that is used to find the value of an unknown number – typically represented by ‘x’ or ‘y.’

In the new study, researchers from Johns Hopkins University showed that most children between 4 and 6 can perform basic algebra even though they have never received formal training.

“These very young children, some of whom are just learning to count, and few of whom have even gone to school yet, are doing basic algebra and with little effort,” said study author Melissa Kibbe, a postdoctoral researcher at Johns Hopkins. “They do it by using what we call their ‘Approximate Number System:’ their gut-level, inborn sense of quantity and number.”

The researchers said an “Approximate Number System” is essentially a basic sense of numbers that humans’ and animals’ use to swiftly scrutinize the quantity of physical objects in their environments. Many animals are born with this capability, which is most likely an evolutionary adaptation that helped our animal ancestors survive in the wild, the study team said. Previous studies have shown that adolescents with better math abilities had an advanced number sense when they were preschoolers.

To determine if preschoolers and kindergarteners have an intuitive mathematical ability to solve an equation with a concealed variable, the researchers acted out a simple problem using two furry stuffed animals – Gator and Cheetah – and “magic cups” filled with items like buttons, tiny plastic shoes and pennies.

Children were informed that each character’s cup would “magically” increase the amount of items to a heap of items already located on a table. The children were not permitted to see the quantity of items in either cup: they were only shown the central pile prior to being added to, and after, meaning they had to figure out how many items were in both Gator’s cup and Cheetah’s cup.

At the end, the proctor pretended that she had confused the cups, and asked the youngsters – after displaying what one of the cups was hiding – to help her determine whose cup it was. Most of the children could figure out whose cup it was, a finding that showed the scientists that their volunteers had been solving for an unknown quantity, essentially basic algebra.

“What was in the cup was the x and y variable, and children nailed it,” said study author Lisa Feigenson, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University. “Gator’s cup was the x variable and Cheetah’s cup was the y variable. We found out that young children are very, very good at this. It appears that they are harnessing their gut level number sense to solve this task.”

She added that the “memorized rules and symbols” taught during algebra instruction may trip us up later in life.

“So one of the exciting future directions for this research is to ask whether telling teachers that children have this gut level ability – long before they master the symbols – might help in encouraging students to harness these skills,” Feigenson said. “Teachers may be able to help children master these kind of computations earlier, and more easily, giving them a wedge into the system.”