Learning numbers 1 by 1

Daniel Ansari explores why some children experience cognitive challenges while developing numerical and mathematical skills at school ⎮ 4 min read
Learning numbers 1 by 1

Daniel Ansari is a Professor in the Department of Psychology and the Faculty of Education at Western University in Canada, where he heads the Numerical Cognition Laboratory. Ansari and his team explore the developmental trajectory underlying both the typical and atypical development of numerical and mathematical skills, using both behavioural and neuroimaging methods.

In the science of learning space, what is the main focus of your research?

The main focus of my research program is to improve understanding of how children develop fundamental numerical skills. My team and I are trying to facilitate this by identifying the building blocks of numerical and mathematical skills. Firstly, we want to find out how children learn the meaning of numbers, secondly, how they go on to use those numbers in complex ways such as mental arithmetic, thirdly, how numbers are processed by the brain and finally, how the brain develops while children are educated at school.

What inspired you to investigate the cognitive challenges children experience at school?

Both my parents were teachers and I grew up surrounded by talk about education and school in my home. So naturally, when I started studying numerical skill development in children, I understood how education research was linked to teaching practice in schools and classrooms. I strongly believe that researchers can learn a lot from interacting with teachers and educators. Such interactions lead to fostering new ideas and collaborative research projects to address classroom challenges. In addition, I was inspired to make more connections within teaching circles because it is clear we still understand so little about why some children persistently struggle with math. I believe the Science of Learning can contribute much to our understanding of the differences between individuals and, exceptional learners.

Is there a reason why some children lack numeracy and mathematical skills compared to others?

I think there is no one reason but rather many. Some children struggle with math because they have trouble grasping basic quantitative concepts, for example, the numerical term 'three' represents all possible sets of 'three'. Other children have difficulties with working memory and thus their ability to do math breaks down when problem solving involves multiple steps. Yet other children find ‘language’ is a barrier to their ability to learn math. Furthermore, we need to recognize some children may not actually lack the skills. A negative attitude towards math, heightened by math anxiety, makes children less inclined to engage with the material. As a consequence, there are multiple reasons why some children struggle. The more research we do, the better able we will be to understand and classify these differences between children.

How do brain-imaging and behavioural studies improve your understanding of developmental cognition?

That is a very broad question! I think first and foremost brain-imaging and behavioural studies are complementary. As a Cognitive Neuroscientist I want to understand behaviour and one way of achieving this and identifying changes to behaviour as a function of learning and development is to study the brain. Another is to study how children respond to questions or how fast and accurate they are at responding to stimuli on a computer screen etc. Today scientists apply methods from multiple fields to address complex questions, such as, how do children learn, and why do some children struggle to learn?

What’s the bigger picture of your research work?

Numerical symbols, such as Arabic Numerals (e.g. 1, 2, 3, etc) are cultural inventions that have been around for just over 5000 years. How do our ancient brains come to process these cultural symbols? We are not born with specialized brain systems to process numerical symbols. Instead every child has to make an effort to learn these symbols. I am fascinated by the learning process involved because it is a way of studying how culture and biology have interacted over the historical course of human development. 

How do we improve numeracy and mathematical performance?

We must use evidence to inform practice by paying attention to the demonstrated success of teaching models like explicit instruction. We have to ensure children are given opportunities to practice and engage in problem-solving activities and avoid communicating false stereotypes about children. For example, there is no research evidence to support the notion girls are not as talented when it comes to math compared to boys. In fact, overwhelming evidence from studies across the globe suggests boys and girls perform similarly in numerical and mathematical tasks from a very young age onwards. We must ensure students who fear math are identified early and help is offered to them, so they can realize their full mathematical potential.

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