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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 ...

Dr. Ansari argues that while it likely plays a part in the development of number skills, its relationship to those skills is not clear. This ambiguity could simply be a matter of variations in the way experiments have been run by different groups – or it could mean that the initial construction of a child’s ability to work with numbers involves something more than mapping symbols onto what the brain is born with.

“The story is not as straightforward as it once seemed,” Dr. Ansari says.

Early indicators

Yet, despite these complexities, Dr. Ansari and other say cognitive research can inform the way math is taught at school.

“Teachers are changing the brains of students in their classrooms.” he says. “There should be a connection between neuroscience and education.”

Part of the challenge is winning over the education establishment, from board administrators to faculties of education, which has not always been welcoming to cognitive science in the classroom.

More recently, there are signs that the tenor of the relationship is changing, though, thanks in part to demonstrated improvements to reading instruction over the past several years based on brain research. Researchers are also working more directly with schools to find useful tools.

For instance, Dr. Ansari’s lab has developed a two-minute “paper-and-pencil” test of numerical ability that could, he says, be administered to kindergartners to help spot differences that could predict future math trouble.

Steve Killip, manager of research and assessment for the Thames Valley District School Board collaborates with Dr. Ansari on projects running at London-area schools. He considers the cognitive research at an “early stage” in terms what it may ultimately mean for classroom practices. But he adds that “there’s more of a sense of partnership and collaboration” compared to an earlier generation of scientists working with the school system to conduct cognitive research.

The school system may also appreciate what the increasing body of research in math cognition says about classroom methodology – including the fact that some of the most well-worn debates over math education may well be moot.

“The bottom line is that dichotomies such as ‘creative’ vs. ‘rote’ math are false dichotomies,” Dr. Ansari says. “Math learning involves both procedures … so biasing the curriculum in any one direction will likely do more harm than good.”

Nancy Jordan, a professor in the School of Education at the University of Delaware, has spent the last five years developing and testing ways to help kindergarten-age children who lag behind in their number skills. She says she has observed a huge shift among the school systems she has worked with, which not so long ago offered no extra help at all for the younger students because math difficulties before Grade 3 are easily overlooked.

“It was kind of a wait-to-fail model,” she says. “Since that time there’s been a lot more in terms of screening and intervention. But we still need to provide instruction that will lead to sustained gains.”

Back in the fMRI machine, six-year-old Olivia is watching a cartoon to give her brain a break after responding to another round of cognitive tasks. Ms. Matejko will meet with her again later in the school year to see how her responses have changed and how that compares with other students in her sample.

“I think this work will help us understand where individual differences come from,” she says. “And perhaps, later on … create change.”

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