Mama always said that you could be the next Albert Einstein if you put your mind to it, but not all mathematical minds are created equal.
At least that's according to the results of a new study by a team of Johns Hopkins University psychologists. The research -- led by Melissa Libertus, a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences -- indicates that math ability in young children is linked to a hard-wired and primitive number sense, called an Approximate Number System (ANS).
This number sense is an invaluable evolutionary trait common to all animals, not just humans. It is measurable in people of all ages, even newborn infants, says Libertus, but her study is the first to examine the role of ANS in children too young to have any substantial mathematical instruction.
The team tested 200 3- to 5-year-old children on a number of tasks measuring number sense, mathematical ability and verbal ability. The researchers found that the precision of children’s estimations correlated with their math skill. That is, children who did well on the number sense task also knew the most about Arabic numerals and arithmetic.
“The relationship between ‘number sense’ and math ability is important and intriguing because 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,” she explained in a press release. “Thus, a link between the two is surprising and raises important issues...”
The verbal test, the last task, was administered because language and math abilities are -- to some extent -- linked through general intelligence, says Libertus, and the researchers wanted to make sure that differences in math ability were not just due to some children performing better on all sorts of tasks or some feeling more comfortable with being tested than others.
Although the link between ANS and formal mathematics ability already has been established in adolescents, the discovery that inborn numerical estimation abilities are linked to mathematical ability has great implications.
“Previous studies testing older children left open the possibility that differences in instructional experience is what caused the difference in their number sense; in other words, that some children tested in middle or high school looked like they had better number sense simply because they had had better math instruction,” Libertus said.
“Unlike those studies, this one shows that the link between ‘number sense’ and math ability is already present before the beginning of formal math instruction.”
The study's results raise questions about whether children’s ANS can be leveraged to improve their math ability and if school math curricula can be made to make use of children’s ANS abilities.