Study: You Can Be Born Bad at Math


NEW YORK (MainStreet) —Don’t feel too bad if you’re not able to add numbers in your head. A study published online by the journal Developmental Science indicates that some people are just born better at math than others.

Researchers at John Hopkins University discovered that math ability in preschool children is strongly linked to their “number sense,” the inborn ability that lets us ascertain, for instance, how many seats may be occupied in a crowded room at a glance or, more primitively, how many nuts we had gathered on a hunting trip without actually counting them.

The link is an important one.

“We believe that ‘number sense’ is universal, whereas math ability has been thought to be highly dependent on culture and language, and takes many years to learn,” Melissa Libertus, lead author of the study, said in a press release. “A link between the two is surprising and raises many important questions and issues, including one of the most important ones, which is whether we can train a child’s number sense with an eye to improving his future math ability.”

Researchers discovered that number sense was innate by testing 200 children (4 year olds, on average) on several tasks measuring number sense, mathematical ability and verbal ability.

In one of the number sense tests, the young participants were shown flashing blue and yellow dots on a computer screen and asked to estimate which color group of dots was more numerous. Counting wasn’t an option, due the fact that the dots were shown so quickly and because most of the children were not yet skilled counters at the time.  The children were then asked what color dots were more numerous. (You can actually take a version of the test here.)

Children were also given a standardized test of early mathematics ability, common among 3- to 8-year-olds. The child’s language capabilities were tested as a control, since some children who are good at one thing tend to be good at others, based on general intelligence.

Ultimately, researchers found that high scores on the number sense tests correlated with high scores on the tests of a child’s math skills. For example, children who could make the best guesses in the dot comparison task also knew the most about Arabic numerals and arithmetic.

But while the study reveals that some people may just be more naturally gifted at math than others, its also indicates that there may be better ways to get those who are  not to improve over time.

“What we have done raises many important avenues for future research and applications in education,” Libertus said.  “One of the most basic is whether we can train children’s [number sense] and thereby improve their math ability.”

Libertus also said the future research could be done to determine whether or not school math curricula could be changed to make use of children’s innate number sense abilities and help them grasp more advanced math concepts earlier.

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