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Six-year-old Oliva Hall gears up to go into an fMRI machine so that University of Western Ontario PhD student Anna Matejko can study how children's brains learn about numbers. (GEOFF ROBINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Six-year-old Oliva Hall gears up to go into an fMRI machine so that University of Western Ontario PhD student Anna Matejko can study how children's brains learn about numbers. (GEOFF ROBINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

The root of the problem: This is your brain on math Add to ...

"The first game we’re going to play is where you see the squares and you have to tell me which side has more of them, okay?” says Anna Matejko.

She is talking to six-year-old Olivia Hall, whose head is so deep in the maw of an fMRI machine that only her feet can be seen sticking out from the giant magnetic imaging device.

It’s an odd way to spend a Sunday morning, but the Grade 1 student has come to University Hospital in London, Ont., so that Ms. Matejko can study the fleeting neural fireworks going off in Olivia’s brain as she responds to a series of simple counting and number problems.

A doctoral student at the University of Western Ontario, Ms. Matejko is trying to understand how kids Olivia’s age – typically transitioning from an intuitive sense of things such as quantity and order to a more abstract way of thinking about numbers that is the basis for later math learning – differ in both brain activation and performance.

If Ms. Matejko can detect those differences reliably, she may also be able to predict which children will struggle with math in later grades – and help teachers intervene before years of frustration and embarrassment take their toll and leave a child firmly convinced that he or she is “bad at math.”

The work is part of a broader effort now under way at Western’s Numerical Cognition Laboratory to understand how the human brain learns about numbers – until recently an under-studied domain of cognitive science.

“As a society we have paid more attention to reading in the past few decades,” says Daniel Ansari, Canada Research Chair in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience and head of the lab. “But more and more I think people are recognizing the importance of math skills … and I think with the research we’re really catching up.”

Their research has particular resonance now, as anxiety grows across North America about students’ math abilities.

In Ontario, provincial test scores have fallen five years in a row, renewing debate about whether the curriculum should move away from concept-based learning and return to old-school arithmetic drills in early grades. Some parents are so concerned about gaps in math education they are hiring private tutors for their children, creating what some fear is a two-tier system; one math-tutoring company, Kumon Canada, says its enrolment in math programs has jumped 23 per cent in three years.

Few doubt that the consequences of poor math skills extend beyond the classroom. A U.S.-Swiss study published in May found that, during the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008, the ability of homeowners to perform basic mathematical calculations was a predictor of whether or not they were likely to default on their mortgage. More broadly, the Obama administration has declared improving math and science education a high priority for economic competitiveness.

Ready or not

Like all learning, exposure to new ideas rewires kids’ brains so that they can handle new tasks. But the outcome is not the same for all children.

For example, David Geary, who leads a long-running research program in math cognition at the University of Missouri in Columbia, has been comparing the math performance of 180 13-year-olds with their numerical knowledge in kindergarten. The results show that differences in mathematical performance persist.

The same group of kids are now 16, and Prof. Geary says the most recent data, as yet unpublished, show the same trend: “If you start school low in math achievement, independent of other things, you tend to stay low.”

More troubling: Slow starters in math are unlikely to catch up, in large part because math involves an ascending progression of concepts where the ability to grasp each new idea depends on a firm understanding of what came before.

“It’s easier to catch up in reading.,” says Prof. Geary. “But in math, the curriculum proceeds whether or not you’re ready for it to proceed.”

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