How Early Knowlege Of Numbers Helps in Understanding Mathematical Subjects

Mathematics is subject dreaded by many. To some students, if there is any way they can do without Maths, they will readily welcome the idea. The reason students give is that the subject is difficult to comprehend. So, in most cases, they just study it because it is compulsory. However, a recent study states that there are people with the natural ability to understand the subject from birth and all they may need will be proper nurturing.
The study, published in the online journal PLoS ONE, September 15, reports that the precision with which pre-school or children in Kindergarten estimate quantities, prior to any formal education in Mathematics, predicts their ability in the subject in elementary school and beyond.
The research was carried out by the Director of Mathematics Skills Development Project at Kennedy Krieger Institute, US, Dr. Michele Mazzocco, Lisa Feigenson and Justin Halberda both of John Hopkins University. According to the study, humans have an intuitive sense of number that allows them, for example, to readily identify which of two containers has more objects without counting. This ability is said to be present at birth, and gradually improves throughout childhood. It also indicates that though it is easier to compare quantities if the amounts differ greatly – such as 30 versus 15 objects – greater precision is needed when comparing items that are much closer in number and that when this ability is measured during the school age years, it correlates with mathematics achievement.
Before the research, reports had it that it was unclear whether this intuitive ability actually serves as a foundation for school-age mathematics abilities. But the results of the new study show that children’s ability to make accurate numerical estimates in pre-school predicted their performance on mathematical tests taken in elementary school, more than two years later. The relationship is said to be specific to mathematics ability, because pre-school number skills did not predict other abilities, such as expressive vocabulary or the ability to quickly name objects like letters or numbers.
Mazzocco, who led the research, says they were interested in knowing if early numerical skills affect performance in Mathematics in later years of education.
“Children vary widely in both their numerical and non-numerical cognitive abilities at all ages. Based on earlier data showing a relationship between intuitive number skills and formal mathematics, we were interested to learn whether numerical skills measured prior to schooling predict the level of mathematics skills children demonstrate years later, in a formal educational setting,” he said.
The researchers examined the performance of 17 children – 7 girls, 10 boys – who had taken part in an earlier study of numerical abilities as pre-schoolers. At ages three and four, the children had been asked to judge which of two sets of objects, such as blue or red crayons, had more items. They measured the same children’s math abilities more than two years later, using a standard mathematics assessment that involved a wide range of skills like counting, reading and writing numbers and simple arithmetic.
Mazzocco says it was striking to find evidence that basic number abilities at such a young age may play a role in formal mathematics achievement. He, however, adds that additional studies may be needed to determine whether these skills are malleable at an early age, how they contribute to mathematics achievement and if they are related to other known influences on mathematics performance.
An earlier study published in the journal Child Development in June, 2011 also finds that having a poor sense of numbers can lead to a mathematical learning disability and difficulty in achieving basic mathematics proficiency. It was also carried out by Mazzocco.
Here, Mazzocco says, inaccurate number sense is just one cause of mathematics learning disabilities. According to him, children with a confirmed mathematics learning disability have a markedly inaccurate number sense compared to their peers and these learning difficulties can have lifelong consequences when it comes to job success and financial decision-making.
In yet another study published in January 2010 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it was reported that female elementary school teachers who are anxious about mathematics may pass on to female students the stereotype that boys, not girls, are good at mathematics
The lead author of the study, Sian Beilock, an associate Professor in Psychology at the University of Chicago, says girls who endorse this belief do worse at mathematics. According to the report, the findings are the product of a year-long study on 17 first- and second-grade teachers, 52 boys and 65 girls who were their students. The researchers found that boys’ mathematics performance was not related to their teacher’s anxiety of the subject while girls’ achievement was affected.
Beilock says, “Having a highly math-anxious female teacher may push girls to confirm the stereotype that they are not as good as boys at the subject, which in turn, affects their achievement.”
The researcher adds that the potential of these teachers to impact girls’ performance by transmitting their own anxiety about mathematics has important consequences, “Teachers’ anxiety might undermine female students’ confidence in learning mathematics throughout their years of schooling and also decrease their performance in other subjects, such as science and engineering, which are dependent on mathematical understanding.” He says.
The researchers determined the impact of teachers’ mathematics anxiety on students, by assessing the teachers’ anxiety about the subject at both the beginning and end of the school year, as well as testing the students’ level of mathematics achievement and the gender stereotypes the students held.
They found that at the beginning of the school year, students’ mathematics achievement was unrelated to teacher anxiety of the subject in both boys and girls. But by the end of the school year, the more anxious teachers were about mathematics, the more likely girls, but not boys, were to endorse the view that “boys are good at math and girls are good at reading.” Girls who accepted this stereotype did significantly worse on mathematics achievement measured at the end of the school year than girls who did not accept the stereotype and than boys overall.
The three studies point to the fact that the ability to excel in mathematics begin from an early age – although it was not concluded that those who begin poorly cannot improve later on but emphasis is on discovering the ability early enough and working hard at nurturing it.
The suggestion is also that elementary school teachers should be properly prepared and strengthened in an attempt to address the issue.

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