Are Some Students Born to Excel at Math?

Do some children have a genetic predisposition to be strong math students? A study that was recently published by the journal 'Developmental Science' suggests that they do. The researchers found that certain math skills may be exhibited even in newborns.

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Newborns and Numbers

A team of psychologists at Johns Hopkins University found that math skills in preschool children appear to be innate. The study, which is titled Preschool acuity of the approximate number system correlates with school math ability, found a connection between the preschoolers' ability in math and their 'number sense.' According to research, number sense is a quality found in all animals. For example, it helps a squirrel determine where the most nuts can be found, thereby providing a necessary survival skill. In humans, it can be used for tasks as common as estimating the size of a crowd at a party.

The link between math skills and number sense had previously been found in older children. The revelation of the new study, which included 200 children around age four, is that it exists in children at such a young age. Preschoolers, unlike adolescents, generally haven't been exposed to formal math education. It's possible, though still unproven, that successful development of number sense in young children can boost later math ability.

Inside the Study

The study tested children on number sense, math ability and verbal skills. To test number sense, researchers flashed groups of differently-colored dots on a computer screen, in a manner that was similar to this online test. The children had to estimate which color was dominant, with the dots disappearing too quickly to be counted. Their ability to correctly estimate the color with the most dots over a series of tests provided researchers with their number sense.

Math skills were tested by means of a standardized test focused on basic math concepts. These included simple counting, comparing numbers, addition and subtraction. For verbal skills, the parents or guardians of the children were provided with a list of words. The researchers asked the adults to note which words they'd heard their child use before. The verbal test enabled the researchers to filter out those children who simply performed at a higher level on all tasks, as well as those children who proved to be more gifted test takers.

Lingering Questions

The results of this study beg questions that only further research may begin to answer. It challenges the previously held notion that varying qualities in math instruction influence number sense. Instead, it may be that children who are born with a stronger number sense find simple math skills easier, thereby giving them an advantage once formal math training begins. Likewise, it could indicate that children who are born with a weaker number sense intuitively shy away from math-based activities before they can even begin to get comfortable.

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