Saturday, November 5, 2005

Maths no problem

PSYCHOLOGISTS at Harvard University have found that five-year-olds are able to grasp numeric abstractions and arithmetic concepts even without the formal education or language to express this knowledge in words.

The discovery of these inborn skills among preschoolers could point the way to new teaching techniques, making arithmetic easier and more pleasant for elementary schoolchildren.

A paper describing the findings will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and is now on the journalís web site.

"Teaching symbolic arithmetic is one of the primary tasks of the first four years of elementary education," says co-author Elizabeth S. Spelke, a professor of psychology in Harvardís Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

"Some children have enormous trouble mastering this skill, and most children find symbolic arithmetic challenging and, at times, confusing. Our studies say, however, that children already have a basic understanding of this domain. I hope our work points the way to improving mathematics education by building on this understanding," she added.

Spelke and her colleagues asked 16 preschoolers to compare arrays of dots on a computer screen, or to merge two sets of dots and then compare these with a third set. Even without the symbolic knowledge of arithmetic that formal schooling brings, the five- year-olds could consistently tell which sets of dots were larger.

Further successful comparisons between arrays of dots and sounds reinforced that the children understood the basic concept of amount. ó ANI