Are Math Smarts Innate?

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There's more to picking up math concepts than paying attention in class, according to recent research. It turns out kids' math performance may be better for those with a natural knack for sensing number quantities.

Previous studies looked at how sensing numbers affected performance, but researchers didn't know whether the natural ability to sense numbers or proficiency seeing numbers as symbols limited math skills. Pinpointing which factor affects learning in children will help teachers and researchers develop better programs for kids who may enter formal education at a disadvantage.

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For example, flashing a number of dots — some blue, others red — and asking someone to determine which group of objects there was more of is a common way to measure people's ability to sense numbers.

The dots appear and disappear so quickly that it becomes impossible to count, so the amounts have to be sensed instead. Also called the Approximate Number System (ANS), this innate ability has been studied in adults, children, infants and even non-human animals. So far, researchers suggest that the accuracy of a person's ANS improves throughout childhood.

The concept also falls within a larger area teachers and researchers refer to as "number sense," or the ability to count, discern quantities, pick up on number patterns and "to rule out unreasonable results to arithmetic operations," according to the paper. Specifically, people and animals subitize, or perceive and estimate the number of objects by glance.

In the experiment, researchers at Johns Hopkins University studied 174 children between 3 and 5 years of age (the original sample included 200 children, but some were excluded for various reasons) to measure their ANS with computer tests. After, they measured children's math and verbal skills through a series of tests and asking parents to list common words in their children's vocabulary.

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Controlling for age, vocabulary size and speed of taking the test, the group still found better ANS scores to be positively associated with children's early math abilities. Previously thought to be the result of different teaching styles, this relationship seems to already exist before kids start formal math education in school.

Despite the results, the authors of the paper readily admit they cannot use ANS to predict math ability. They also caution that they could not control other aspects of cognition, which may also be at play.

The New York Times has a handy interactive that allows you to measure your ANS.

Photo by Uqbar is back/Flickr.com