We are taught that as teachers, it’s our job to differentiate our lessons to suit all kinds of learners. Is there a type of student, however, that won’t excel at math no matter what we do simply because they can’t? Is it fair to evaluate all students using the same test when some have a natural advantage? Scientists are determined to find out and many feel this will change the face of education.
First off, it is a proven fact that we are born with a form of mathematical intelligence known as number sense. Number sense is an innate characteristic belonging to all creatures, not just humans. Without number sense, we wouldn’t know how to tell if there was enough room for all our family members in a minivan, or if there are enough seats at the table for all your dinner guests. It allows us to make sense of amounts and quantities in general terms.
Melissa Libertus, a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at John Hopkins University went about measuring number sense in children who have not had any formal schooling yet. These kids were mainly preschoolers who didn't even know how to perform basic arithmetic. Their entire wealth of mathematical knowledge comes back to that intrinsic, animalistic quality of number sense. Well, that and whatever Dora the Explorer taught them about counting. What better place to begin to explore the possibility of a math “gene” or ability that nature supposedly endows to some and not others?
Two hundred four year olds participated in Libertus’ research. The children were given basic tasks to perform that involved counting, number recognition, etc. Children were also asked to estimate relative quantities. For example, various coloured dots would flash on a computer screen and each tyke was asked to name which colour appeared more often. This last skill was the best test of their inborn number sense.
In short, the researchers found that students who performed best at this estimation task also performed much better at the tasks that involved counting and other forms of “classic math”. When that natural mathematical tendency was strong, so was their performance in formal, structured math. Could this suggest that, yes, indeed, some students are just born destined to become better mathematicians than others?
"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," Libertus states. "Thus, 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."
In other words, while you can teach a student to memorize their multiplication tables and the quadratic formula, the skills required for mastery of the core, conceptual part of math (understanding concepts like less, or more, for instance), is inborn. However, this ability may mean more to students who don’t do as well in math.
A study published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology by Bonny and Laurenco indicates that this number sense ability and math competence had a stronger correlation when the students had lower scores in math. A lower number sense ability was more predictive of a low math test score than a high number sense ability could predict a high test score. This begs the question: what implication does this have for us as teachers?
Teachers can modify their teaching by focusing on core concepts and fundamentals and emphasize their importance. This points to the importance of elementary school math. While these students are still young, they should focus on strengthening their number sense skills so that in high school, they will be better prepared for more advanced math. Without a strong foundation, these students won't be able to thrive.
Just because a student has a stronger innate ability that may suggest they are more mathematically inclined does not mean we should sit back and assume they are the future Einstein. They need guidance and coaxing as well. On the other hand, we should not be quick to dismiss a student as lazy simply because they did not fare well on a math test. Their intrinsic number sense abilities may not be strong as Little Johnny who gets straight A’s without studying. It’s kind of funny, in a way. Although there is documented scientific evidence to suggest that yes, some students just may not have what it takes to excel in math, that will not make a significant change in our roles as teachers.
On my first day of teacher’s college, I heard this wonderful analogy about a teacher and a gardener and it fits no situation more perfectly than this one. A teacher is a like a gardener. They are given a seed that is meant to be a tree. They don’t sit and glue together the sticks and branches to form that tree. Rather, they plant that seed, water it, give it whatever it needs to thrive, and stand back and watch.
That innate number sense ability is that seed.