Study challanges perceptions about intrinsic mathematical ability

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A new study challenges the widely held notion that mathematic abilities are inherent. Rather, it suggests that math skills need to be acquired over time. This study, though not yet published, invites other experts in the field to challenge the argument in order to build a discourse that may contribute insight into the topic. Published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, the study was conducted by researchers from the University of Western Ontario and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

Scientists devoted years of research to this topic, as math is prevalent in the lives of so many individuals. Some scientists have noted that numbers can be perceived, similar to the way that people understand and receive colors. In order to represent how this theory functions, scientists laid out a topographic map using color-coding to give importance to geographical items intended for immediate absorption. The qualm with this theory, as pointed out by researchers in the study, was that this method failed to acknowledge factors other than quantity.

While many have asserted that mathematic abilites are inherent, new research suggests math skills can be acquired over time. Photo: Borys Shturman

Previous scientists also suggested that having “number sense” can be better expressed visually using a model of two core systems, in which the first core system represents high numeric quantities and the second represents numeric quantities up to the number four. This system relies on estimation and enables people of varying ages to discriminate between certain numerical ratios.

The second core system, which represents smaller numeric quantities, reflects an infant’s ability to process and compute up to three objects, while an adult can process and compute up to four. The second core system model is not dependent on the ability to understand ratios.

The study proposes that calculation and identification of numeric quantity is dependent on its relationship to other factors, such as area, density and size of the items represented. The study suggests that these factors, referred to as “continuous magnitudes,” create a more accurate number sense when used in combination with quantity.

In order to represent the need to factor in continuous magnitudes, the researchers cite an example that prompts an individual to quickly calculate the shortest wait time at a supermarket. According to the study, “When waiting in line, you will usually choose to wait behind the person with the emptiest cart because usually less-filled carts carry less items. There are, however, exceptions to this rule—you will wait less time after a full cart containing a few large items than after a half-empty cart containing many small items.”

Cognitive control abilities constantly develop with age, so the study suggests that these individuals use these abilities in order to arrive at numerically better options. The study makes clear, however, that numerical and continuous magnitudes do not always perfectly correlate.

“However in this case, one cannot be sure that participants are basing their decision on continuous magnitude, numerosity or a combination of both. Hence, the ability to discriminate between very similar numerosities and the ability to inhibit irrelevant continuous magnitudes are inseparable,” the study highlights.

The researchers involved in the study suggest that number sense develops as an individual progresses in understanding the relationship between numerical and continuous magnitudes. Difficulty in grasping the relationship between the two may lead to poor math abilities, especially during early developmental stages.

Although the study challenges various theories that suggest that number sense is innate to certain individuals, conclusive evidence proving otherwise has not yet been found. The goal of the study, as stated by the researchers, is to raise questions that challenge the current working theory. In individuals with dyscalculia, or severe difficulty in computation and calculation that is typically brought on by brain disorders, the study suggests that the correlation between numerosity and continuous magnitudes is what can lead to difficulty.

A test conducted between children who did not exhibit dyscalculia and children who did found that the only difference was their handle on cognitive control. This indicates that the only factor that may bear difference is the ability to think about math using various cognitive functions, rather than a simple mathematical impairment. It is important to point out, however, that young students with dyscalculia are already facing difficulties in comparison to their counterparts.

With this study, math education may change for the better in upcoming years. The process of teaching math may become more streamlined by encouraging students to use different tactics to come to their answer.