Study: Some are born with math ability

September 1, 2011 at 4:09 pm 5 comments

The below links to the UPI story on this study, and the NYTimes just covered it, too.  The implications for STEM education are pretty interesting.  If you aren’t born with math skills, can they be developed?  Without that developmental effort, how well will the students without good number sense do in STEM fields? What other kinds of skills are critical for STEM learning, how do we identify them, test for them, and create developmental remediation if they are missing?

People can be born with good math skills, just as some are born with a talent for music, art or athletics, a U.S. study suggests.

Research conducted by Johns Hopkins University psychologists indicates math ability in preschool children is strongly linked to their inborn and primitive “number sense,” called an “Approximate Number System” — ANS.

via Study: Some are born with math ability –

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mike Byrne  |  September 1, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    The headline on the UPI piece is totally misleading. Just because you observe a correlation (of a size not reported in either piece, and unfortunately my university doesn’t get the original journal) in 3-5 year olds it does NOT mean that it’s innate. There is evidence, for instance, that infant birthweight is correlated with adult IQ, and socioeconomic factors account for as much variance in infant birthweight as genetic ones. As far as I can tell, NOTHING in the cited research says anything whatsoever about genetics or what anyone is “born with.” As far as I can tell the use of “inborn and primitive” in the UPI piece is not justified by the research. (The researchers may be making that link, but I don’t think this study supports it.)

    Second, I strongly suspect these correlations are weak. IIRC, the correlations between these kind of ANS measures and math performance in older kids aren’t that strong (nonzero, to be sure, but not overwhelming), and my guess based on the sample size of 200 is that the correlations here aren’t really all that large, either.

    Thus, I find it HIGHLY unlikely that it’s a good idea for STEM educators to worry about people who “aren’t born with math skills.” I’m pretty sure 3-year-olds with low scores on these ANS measures can still develop math skills. There is a HUGE gap between “correlation” and “can’t learn.”

  • 2. Jason Buell  |  September 1, 2011 at 5:50 pm

    What Mike said….

    They took “before formal schooling” to mean “innate.” Seriously? I spend serious time just playing around with numbers with my kids. We count stuff, sort, look at patterns, etc. Some parents do more and some do less. For balance, here’s one on gender and spatial reasoning:

  • 3. John "Z-Bo" Zabroski  |  September 1, 2011 at 5:53 pm

    So is math about being “good with numbers”?

  • 4. Dan M  |  September 1, 2011 at 9:19 pm

    It makes you wonder if the fastest running 3-5 year olds are also the highest jumping 3-5 year olds. It would be interesting to know if a link exists between running and jumping before children have any formal training in these activities, as that would certainly be evidence of an innate athletic ability that some kids are born with and some are not. There would be important implications for teaching students to maintain a level of fitness throughout their lives. We will probably want to steer the unathletic students toward sedentary jobs where their other abilities can shine and not push them to exercise since they wont be any good at it.

  • 5. Alan Kay  |  September 3, 2011 at 11:25 am

    These matters are highly charged in our society, and many positions are taken more on what is desired rather than what might be the case.

    The bottom lines with Biology are “innate” and “variation”. Many studies have been made on what different animals (including us) “know” (and “know how to do”) at birth. There are hundreds of them. There is also (a) not enough genetic material, and (b) too much noise to not have variation in genetics and somatics for each individual.

    However, the real issue for any person (and for educators trying to help them) is “what results are possible through a combination of “propensity”, “will”, “environment” and trained “skills”.

    Many things that we hope people will learn are both inventions, and also highly developed.

    So e.g. there really is such a thing as musical talent, but for classical music at least, those born with “high propensity” still have to put in a lot of practice. Those of us with less propensity (like me) have to do more practice — for example my fine muscle memory is just not as good as some of my friends — but we are not shut out from getting quite fluent, because we can substitute “will and work” to a considerable extent.

    In other words, classical music (and many other inventions — like mathematics) transcend the merely biological for deep fluency. But there is a lot of evidence that the levels beyond deep fluency are likely influenced more by the biological than by just will and work and environment.




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