A new study argues that people have an intuitive understanding of numbers that closely correlates with their aptitude for complex math, and that some people are simply better at it. The research team found that 14-year-olds who were better at estimating quantities were more likely to have gotten high grades in math. Says lead researcher Justin Halberda: “We discovered that a child’s ability to quickly estimate how many things are in a group significantly predicts their performance in school mathematics all the way back to kindergarten” [Washington Post].
Researchers expressed surprise that the basic “number sense” that has been observed in some animals is linked to the ability to solve complicated equations. “Maximising your search for food, finding a seat on the bus, recognizing the difference between a mating call and an alarm call in a particular species of bird by the number of warbles — all of these require [number sense]…. What is surprising is that the formal mathematics we work so hard to learn in school … is related in any way to what a rat is doing when it is out looking for scraps of food, or what you and I are doing when we look for a seat on a bus,” said Halberda [AFP].
In the study, published in the journal Nature [subscription required], researchers quickly flashed displays containing many yellow and blue dots in front of the students, then asked them to estimate how many dots of each color they had just seen. Teenagers with the highest … scores also tended to have the best scores in maths tests all the way back to the age of 5, even after measurements of IQ and visual-spatial reasoning skills were taken into account. “There are vast individual differences in the acuity of this number sense in 14-year-olds,” says Halberda [New Scientist].
The researchers did not go so far as to say that mathematic ability is purely genetic, or that a good number sense is the best predictor of grades in math class. “It remains to be seen if one can improve a student’s innate number sense by practice and training, and whether such training will lead to improvements in school math performance,” Halberda said [AFP].
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