Friday, June 12, 2009

Slide 2: b=the math ability we are born with

Even though we frequently hear people complain (or maybe apologize is a better word) that they just aren’t good at math, we are all, in fact, born to do math. Studies with infant humans (and many other animals) show that they can recognize small quantities, like one, two, or three, without counting, an ability known as subitizing. Google the term and you’ll likely find a little subitizing game that let’s you compare your ability to subitize versus a chimpanzee’s skill.

We’re also born with the ability to make comparisons. We can tell the difference between a lot and a few. From an evolutionary point of few, it’s not surprising that we (and, again, other animals) can quickly make quantitative comparisons. Knowing whether the odds favor running away or staying to fight helps improve the chances of survival. We’re generally not as good when the ratio gets closer to 1 to 1, but some of us are better than others. In fact, you can once again poke around on the web and find a game to test the edges of your ability to determine which of two sets is bigger at a glance. Some researchers found that students who performed better at comparing sets as the ratio got closer to 1 to 1 had histories of better performance in math in school. Interesting.

Using puppets and watching how long babies stare at something unexpected, several research groups have found that we also seem to be born with the ability to add and subtract, at least up to the number 3. Show 3 puppets and then show 1, and the baby looks puzzled. Show 2 puppets, and the baby is still puzzled. Where’s the third one? We’re pretty amazing even before we’ve had any formal education.

There’s even some research suggesting that we have some innate ability to recognize fractions and ratios. It’s tough to explore this ability, but very young children do look surprised when something like a book is hanging more than halfway over the edge of a counter, and it doesn’t fall. Maybe all the times that my son pushed his sippy cup or food bowl off the edge of the table, he was actually exploring his concept of proportionality (and gravity).

These born-with-it math abilities are variables. They are not the same for each of us. Some of us have more robust spatial awareness than others. Some can subitize larger quantities. But the natural math capacity we bring into the world is part of the equation for our mathematical identities.

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