Children may instinctively know how to do division before formal math training

(ORDO NEWS) — From an early age, children can perform simple mathematical calculations using their intuitive ability to compare and evaluate sets of objects.

A new study published in the journal Frontiers suggests that this approximate number system extends to division as well.

We often think of multiplication and division as calculations that should be taught in school. However, a large body of research suggests that even before the start of formal education, children have intuitive arithmetic abilities.

A new study published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience claims that this ability to approximate calculations extends even to the most feared basic math problem real division.

The study was based on the Approximate Number System (ANS), a well established theory that humans (and even non-human primates) have an intuitive ability to compare and evaluate large sets of objects from an early age without relying on language or symbols.

For example, within this non-symbolic system, a child can understand that a group of 20 dots is larger than a group of four dots, even if four dots take up more space on the page. The ability to make finer approximations say 20 points versus 17 points improves towards adulthood.

Researchers studying ANS are not only interested in how we think about numbers before formal education, but also in how to apply these findings in the classroom.

A positive result would be especially important for low income children, who make up the majority of school age study participants, as they are at risk of getting lower grades in math as they progress into school.

“ANS is universal, and finding ways to use ANS could be one of many important ways to bridge the achievement gap,” said Dr. Elizabeth M Brannon, head of the Evolving Consciousness Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and co-author of the study.

Brannon and other members of the US research team conducted several experiments to evaluate the ability of six to nine year olds and college students to perform symbolic and non symbolic approximate division.

According to Brannon, the experiments were designed not only to test the hypothesis that children do indeed have the ability to perform similar calculations in early childhood, but also whether this number sense can be used to improve math learning later in life.

“This issue is controversial because the existing data is ambiguous,” she explained. “However, our research offers some hope for this venture, showing that children can flexibly divide quantities and even symbols before they learn about formal division.”

New dividing line

For example, in one experiment, children and adults solved non symbolic and symbolic math problems by watching dots or numbers (divisor) on a computer screen fall on a flower with different numbers of petals (divisible).

Their task was to decide which number is larger dots or numbers divided between flower petals on the left side of the screen, or one petal with a new number of dots / numbers on the right side of the screen.

Participants scored well above random, with children choosing the correct answer 73% to 77% of the time, depending on whether they received feedback at different stages of the experiment. Adults got correct answers almost 90% of the time.

Even children who could not respond to the verbal tasks for symbolic division successfully completed the experiment, a result that confirms brain imaging studies showing increased activity in a crucial area associated with number sense.

“We were very surprised that children who could not solve any formal verbal or written division problem for example, how much is four divided by two?

Still coped quite well with the symbolic version of our approximate division problem,” Brannon noted. “Thus, even before formal mathematical education, we have a rough sense of number that relies on areas of the brain that continue to play a role in formal mathematics.”

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