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New theory argues against innate maths abilities

A new theory regarding how the brain first learns basic maths could alter approaches to identifying and teaching students with maths learning disabilities.

Research funded through the European Research Council (ERC) SMINC (Size Matters in Numerical Cognition) project and published in the journal ‘Behavioural and Brain Sciences’ has offered a better understanding of how, why and when people acquire everyday maths skills. The most widely accepted theory today suggests that people are born with a ‘sense of numbers’, an innate ability to recognise different quantities, such as the number of items in a shopping trolley and that this skill improves with age. Early maths curricula and tools for diagnosing maths-specific learning disabilities, such as dyscalculia, have been based on this consensus. Dyscalculia is a brain disorder that makes it hard to make sense of numbers and maths concepts. ‘If we are able to understand how the brain learns maths, and how it understands numbers and more complex maths concepts that shape the world we live in, we will be able to teach maths in a more intuitive and enjoyable way,’ commented study author Dr Tali Leibovich. ‘This study is the first step in achieving this goal.’ In particular the study, conducted jointly between researchers at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel (BGU) and the University of Western Ontario in Canada, challenges the prevalent ‘sense of numbers’ theory. Other theories suggest that a ‘sense of magnitude’ that enables people to discriminate between different ‘continuous magnitudes’, such as the density of two groups of apples or total surface area of two pizza trays, is even more basic and automatic than a sense of numbers. The research team argue that understanding the relationship between size and number is critical for the development of higher maths abilities. By combining numbers and size (such as area, density and perimeter), we can make faster and more efficient decisions. One example of utilising this in practice would be how to choose the quickest queue at the supermarket. Whilst most people would intuitively get behind someone with a less filled-looking trolley, a fuller-looking trolley with fewer, larger items may actually be quicker. The researchers argue that the way we make these kinds of decisions reveals that people use the natural correlation between number and continuous magnitudes to compare magnitudes. The team also urge for the consideration of the roles of other factors, such as language and cognitive control, play in acquiring numerical concepts. Whilst the theoretical models presented in the paper may raise more questions than answers, the research team hopes their hypothesis will reveal new ways of identifying dyscalculia that can currently only be diagnosed in school-aged children. Importantly, children with the disorder at this stage are already lagging behind their peers. Thus, a diagnosis as early as possible would enable for adequate support measures to be put in place. ‘This new approach will allow us to develop diagnostic tools that do not require any formal maths knowledge, thus allowing diagnosis and treatment of dyscalculia before school age,’ says Dr Leibovich. The SMINC project, run from BGU, is due to end in August 2017 and has received just over EUR 2.5 million in EU funding. For more information, please see: project page on CORDIS



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