Beersheba and Ontario researchers study ways to help children learn math

Their theory could affect the way dyscalculia is diagnosed.

November 2, 2016 21:50
2 minute read.
Human brain

An image of the human brain. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Psychologists at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the University of Western Ontario have offered a new theory of how the brain first learns basic math. The theory recently published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences is based on research by Dr. Tali Leibovich from UWO and BGU doctoral students Naama Katzin and Maayan Harel, with supervision by Prof. Avishai Henik.

It has already been established that which line you choose at the supermarket helps in the understanding of how math abilities develop.

“If we are able to understand how the brain learns math, and how it understands the concept of numbers and more complex math concepts that shape the world we live in, we will then be able to teach math in a more intuitive and enjoyable way. The current study is the first step in achieving this goal,” said Leibovich, who currently works in Ontario.

The dilemma about choosing the fastest checkout line at the supermarket is well known. According to the most acceptable theory today, people are born with a “sense of numbers,” an ability to recognize different quantities, such as the number of items in a shopping cart, and that ability improves with age.

Early curricula in math as well as tools for diagnosing math-specific learning disabilities (such as dyscalculia, which involves difficulty understanding and manipulating numbers) have been developed based on that theory.

But the new paper challenges the prevalent “number sense” theory, and presents evidence supporting the claim that the sense is not inborn, but acquired.

The key to the new theory is the relationship between number and size (such as area, density and perimeter).

The researchers presented evidence that when people compare quantities, as in the case of shopping carts, they decide based not only on the number of items but also on size – the total area the items occupy and their density. Combining size and number allows us to make a faster, more efficient decision, they wrote, arguing that first understanding the relationship between size and number is critical for development of higher math ability.

Their theory could affect the way dyscalculia is diagnosed.

Today, the learning disability can be diagnosed only in school-aged children, when the sufferers are already lagging behind their peers. “The new theory will allow us to develop diagnostic tools that do not require any formal math knowledge, thus allowing diagnosis and treatment of dyscalculia before school age,” said Leibovich.

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