There is **an article in Telegraph newspaper**, shared with me by @bucharesttutor which suggests that people are born bad at mathematics. While this may be true, the research cited by the article cannot be used to make this claim.

From **the article**:

*The research, led by Dr Melissa Libertus, focuses for the first time on children too young to have had lessons in maths.*

*Dr Libertus said: "Our study shows the link between ‘number sense’ and maths ability is already present before the beginning of formal math instruction.*

*"The relationship between ‘number sense’ and maths ability is important and intriguing.*

*"Maths ability has been thought to be highly dependent on culture and language and takes many years to learn.*

*"A link between the two is surprising and raises many important questions and issues."*

*During the study, 200 four-year-olds underwent several tests.*

The problem with this article is that it makes the claim that this means that the ability to do math could be inborn. In fact, the article goes on to claim:

*According to the research team, this means that being good at maths could be inborn.*

There is a serious flaw in this research. By the time the kids are 4 years old, they may not have had any formal math instruction, but **they have had lots of informal math instruction, from their parents and other adults in their lives. **It’s possible that this is accounted for in the research, but it is not mentioned at all in the article. Articles like this make me upset because they are intended to be sensationalist, rather than really informative.

My son and I play numerical games. We play Go Fish, and roll dice as part of board games. We count everything. We count in 2s and 5s and 10s. We play with blocks and build intricate patterns. We talk about fractions, and split halves into halves to get quarters, add up halves to get wholes.

We play a game that @JohnTSpencer suggested which we call "How can we get ____?". I choose a number, and my son tries to figure out a bunch of different ways to get that number through addition. For example, I’ll ask my son, "How can we get 7?" He responds with, "Uh… (thinking) … 1 and 2 and 2 and 1 and 1 is 7!" I’ll ask him, "What are some other ways to get 7?" He’ll come back with, "Uh… (more thinking) … 1 and 1 and 1 and 1 and 1 and 1 and 1 makes 7. Also, 2 and 5 makes 7!" He used to use his fingers a lot when playing this game, but he’s switched to doing it in his head. He then gives me a number (usually much larger) and I model playing the game as well, talking aloud when I’m "figuring out" how to make the number he’s given me.

The point is, because I am mathematically numerate, I pass along this numeracy to my son through informal conversations and numeracy games. One cannot assume that simply because children have no formal mathematics instruction that they have no math learning. Our world is filled with mathematics, and the people who recognize that will share it with kids. By the time kids are 4 years old, they will likely have had literally thousands of interactions with numeracy.

## Tia says:

I couldn’t agree with you more!

In my experience teaching Kindergarten and Grade 1, when talking to parents about some struggles that their children may be having in math and number sense, I got a LOT, “Yah, well, I always struggled in math. I just couldn’t do it and I guess (s)he/s going to take after me.” I can not tell you how frustrating this is to hear. Of course, these parents are the same who have not provided their children with the informal “fun” game-like activities you describe in your post. I would discuss with parents how important their attitude toward learning and math is for their child’s future development in math. I would emphasize that if they keep saying that “math is hard” and “I’m no good at math” then soon, their child will be saying the exact same thing. I would also suggest numerous games or activities that would make learning math fun, rather than a drill-and-kill approach. Parents were very grateful for the suggestions. I think parents just need to have tools given to them and the confidence to know they can help their children – especially before any formal “education” happens. Education happens from the day a child is born (and even before).

So, yes, sorry for the rant, I agree with your post and your thoughts here!

August 10, 2011 — 1:59 pm

## Alexander Bogomolny says:

I have not read the article you refer to; I am still sure that most of the kids are not born with any math ability beyond rudimentary arithmetic. It is said that human brain undergone very little evolution in the past 10000 years. Mathematics requires an ability for a certain kind of abstract thinking – something that was not needed to cave dwellers. That’s all.

This is a frequent and unhealthy confusion between numeracy and mathematics. Many a mathematician lack the number sense. Having the number sense does not by itself qualify a person as being able of doing mathematics.

Other than that, I am in complete agreement with what your wrote. It’s a tremendous advantage for a kid to be born into a numerate family. Schools could not make up for family negligence.

August 10, 2011 — 2:38 pm

## David Wees says:

Yeah, I agree that kids are "not born with any math ability beyond rudimentary arithmetic." What I’m saying is, you can’t tell from measuring students at 4 years old if they have been born with more or less numeracy (or math) ability. Recommend reading the article, it really is atrocious.

August 10, 2011 — 2:44 pm

## Djun Kim says:

I see the research as validating the importance of those very early years.

It’s not surprising that there should be variability in abilities and characteristics at birth and very early ages.

Research (e.g. by Fei Xu at UBC, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15647069) shows that 6mo. old infants have a sense of Numerosity.

Halberda et al. show (http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-09/jhu-aea090308.php) that Number sense at age 14 correlates positively with (contemporary and future) math “performance”.

Research also shows that certain “interventions” for children age 4-7 seem to be effective (at least in short time scales) at enhancing number sense

(http://ethesis.helsinki.fi/julkaisut/kay/sovel/vk/aunio/numberse.pdf)

The work of Geetha Ramani and Robert Siegler (2008), as reported at http://www.parentingscience.com/preschool-board-game-math.html, shows a correlation between playing board games and four mathematical tasks. I’m sure there’s many other studies that support the hypothesis that various kinds of “interventions” at early ages correlate with better number sense, knowledge and ability.

http://www.child-encyclopedia.com/documents/JordanANGxp.pdf looks like a pretty good survey, too.

SO:

1) there is variability at birth in developmental aspects of children related to mathematical ability later in life

2) these developmental aspects (number sense, etc) can be strengthened with appropriate activities

3) Children with well-developed number sense at early school age tend to out-perform children with poorer number sense over the course of their schooling.

August 10, 2011 — 2:54 pm

## Laura Laing says:

And I’m even more frustrated with the media reports about this study. As a journalist, I am amazed at how stories are misrepresenting and not questioning the results of this study. It’s another example of how science reporting is sorely lacking.

Here is my post on the topic: http://mathforgrownups.com/2011/08/12/math-secret-2-you-were-born-this-way-take-2/

Thanks for these terrific thoughts.

Laura

August 12, 2011 — 10:46 am

## John T. Spencer says:

Just now catching up on my feeds. Thanks for including me in the post. I agree that kids aren’t born bad at math. Nor are they born hating the subject. Shame is what beats it out of them.

August 13, 2011 — 12:58 pm

## Ms H says:

After reading the research article and various comments on different websites on this subject I felt compel to reply. I have always struggled with math subjects…even from elementary years. The harder I tried the more frustrated I became. Now, I am an adult….and I still am unale to grasp math. I have tried tutors…studying…and yet, the suject is difficult. I attend college…I have a 3.4 GPA and a falling grade in college math. I Paid to have a Psychologist test my level education skill and although my written, verbal, problem-solving skills were average or above…my math skill was slightly “below” average. I explained that I had never been good at math, but she (the Psychologist) believe the mess that some of those who replied to this research believe….”just practice” Well…I am here to tell you…that practicing does not help “everyone”. I am now face with trying to pass college math courses…that I have no hope of passing….my college advisors seem unwilling to understand my problem…and although I have proven that I have stronger intelligence in all but one area, I may never be able to graduate with my bachelors degree. So…..what do you tell individuals like me who are living with a math “disability?” If you have any suggestions?

August 17, 2011 — 10:02 am

## David Wees says:

First, it is important to distinguish calculations from math, and it may be that you are poor at calculations (which are prevalent in math, and commonly mistaken for it) but find calculating either impossible or difficult. If this is the case, you likely have something called

dyscalculia, which occurs to somewhere between 3% and 6% of the population (according to Wikipedia). There is information about this disorder (which is much like dyslexia) at http://www.dyscalculia.org/ including information for colleges.If you do have a disability, but are otherwise capable of completing college, as your grade point average suggests you are, then it is the responsibility of your college to accommodate your learning difference. In Canada you would be eligible for additional support, and some sort of modified degree schedule.

It is also important to know that there are some very famous people out there who suffer from dyscalculia as well, and that you are not alone. There is no relationship between dyscalculia and intelligence whatsoever, and the fact that so many of our colleges use mathematics as a barrier to earning a degree is unfortunate. My wife is similarly poor in math, and just barely graduated, but I number her among the most intelligent women I know (or I would not have married her).

Another option for you, rather than forcing your college to relent and find an alternative to finishing math at your school, is to look for colleges a which do not require a math course to graduate. Alternatively, you could try taking a math course (make sure the credits for it will transfer) at another institution, one which recognizes dyscalculia as a disorder, and use those credits to allow you to graduate.

It may be that you do not have dyscalculia, and that you are just lacking some foundational skills. At this point, I hardly think it is worth the enormous time and effort it would take to repeat your entire math education to be able to jump through this one hoop, and you may want to explore the options I’ve suggested anyway.

It should be noted that I am

notan expert in this area, and that you should also see if you can find other advice as well. Perhaps there is a college math teacher at your school who understands your plight, and is willing to help you out.August 17, 2011 — 12:52 pm

## Wendy says:

I too have suffered with poor math skills my entire life. Like you, scored very well in everything else but Math always brought down GPA. I have learned over the years that instead of trying to learn at the level I should already be that I needed to back way up and work on the basics. I practiced basic elementary school math (feeling like a total dumb bunny at the time) but it has paid off. I had to back up get a good foundation and then try to build, SLOWLY, on that foundation. I think that somewhere along the way while in school some of us miss the basics and then cannot learn as the math progresses. You can’t build a roof without a foundation and frame. Now in my adult life, I depend on my husband a lot and google but I do keep trying to learn. I take notes that say things like “Figuring out the area of a room for carpet” or “Converting a metric recipe” and then write out, in words (my strength) the steps. Again, I feel way too old to be writing things like this and I am embarrassed for anyone to know that I have notes like that, HOWEVER, you have to get things very simple and in terms you understand. I struggled through nursing school but finished first in my class due to the hours I spent writing notes like “One bag of IV fluids = 1000cc = 1 liter = 1 bag of fluids”. The good news? I have improved over the years and have found that once I took the pressure off myself to perform at the level of other people my age, I have much better skills. I also realize, I will never have the skills my husband (engineer) will have and I have accepted that. As far as getting through school, you will have to give yourself more time. It is tough I am sure but realize what you can do and start from that point. Take any passing grade you can manage and commit yourself to learning any math you may need for your profession inside and out. Best of luck and hang in there!

August 17, 2011 — 1:34 pm