It’s raised by blood pressure this week. Misleading headlines about your child’s math ability:

“Count on this: Math ability is inborn.”

What’s wrong with all this? Plenty:

The study in question didn’t address “inborn” math ability, but instead differences among kids attending preschool.

If there were a study measuring differences in preschoolers’ early literacy skills, would we conclude that those differences were “inborn?”

And when people hear that a trait is “inborn” or “genetic,” they often assume the trait is fixed and unmodifiable.

There’s no reason to make this assumption about math ability. But if you believe it, you may shrink from challenges and give up in response to failure. Good at math? Bad at math? You can’t help it. No need to look for new ways to teach and motivate kids. Everybody—parent, teacher, student—is off the hook.

So headlines like this–and the bogus ideas they inspire–will hurt kids at school. Count on that.

In an upcoming post, I’ll talk about the measurable damage such ideas have on your child’s academic performance. Yes–even on your very smart kid’s performance.

But let’s back up a bit. What are these stories about? Let’s take a look at the research.

Your child’s primitive number sense

Melissa Libertus and her colleagues at John Hopkins University study something called the Approximate Number System, or ANS.

That’s what we use when we look at a pile of cookies and guess (with some accuracy) how many there are.

It’s how you can tell which tree has more apples on it without having to count them all.

And if that sounds subtle, consider this: Monkeys can do it. Birds can do it. So can human babies.

But some people are better at estimating than others. And here’s the really intriguing part:

The better you are at rough approximation, the better your overall math skills tend to be.

Why? There are several possibilities. Let’s take two:

1. Good approximation skills are a side-effect of formal math instruction.

The more experienced you become with mathematics, the more accurate your ANS becomes.
**

1. Good approximation skills help kids learn about numbers.**

For instance, kids who start out with strong approximation skills might have an easier time understanding what “87 bananas” really means, and how that’s different from, say, “52 bananas.”

By contrast, kids with poor approximation skills might have trouble developing an intuitive feeling for quantity. And that could make math lessons seem very abstract and difficult. So they struggle and fall behind.

Libertus and her team were interested in possibility #2, so they decided to test children who hadn’t received much formal instruction.

Do preschoolers (aged 3-5) show individual differences in their ability to compare quantities? And if so, does this skill predict their performance on other math tests?

The answers were “yes” and “yes.”

When researchers showed kids two sets of dots, and asked them to select the larger quantity, some children were more accurate than others. And the kids with greater accuracy tended to know more about numbers. They could count better, read Arabic numerals better, and so on.

It was a small effect. Most of the difference in math knowledge between kids could not be explained by differences in their approximation skills. But the effect was there.

So the study offers support for the idea that our primitive sense of quantity–the approximate number system–is linked with math achievement, even before kids have had years of formal math instruction.

What are the practical implications of this kind of research? They seem pretty clear:

• Maybe we should help preschoolers develop an intuitive sense of number.

• Maybe we can help struggling students improve their math scores by going back to the beginning—training them to improve their number estimation skills.

And–guess what?–it’s already being done.

Experimental studies suggest effective ways to boost preschoolers’ “number sense.” And special training programs are being developed that may help school children with math deficits catch up.

What about other implications?

There’s nothing in this new study about genetics or innate math talent. Who knows what these kids had already learned at home…or in preschool?

There is nothing to make us think that kids with good number approximation skills have an overwhelming or permanent advantage.

And there certainly isn’t any anything in this study to suggest that kids with poor number approximation skills can’t be trained to overcome their difficulties.

So why is the internet abuzz with headlines about people “born good (or bad) at math?”

I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions. But I have no doubt that the misleading spin on this story has made many people tell themselves: Aha. That’s why I never progressed beyond 8th grade mathematics. Or: Maybe my daughter just isn’t meant to do well in math. It’s just not in her genes.

And so people will give up, when they might have achieved much more. And had many, many more options in life.

Are we going to let this misunderstanding slide? Or shall we do something about it? Let’s spread the word.

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Source: BabyCenter – http://goo.gl/uQyL5