Have you ever wondered what makes some people into natural mathematicians while others seem to struggle with grasping even basic concepts? Do you wonder whether there are things you should be doing to help your children reach their potential in math? Here’s my rundown of recent math education research into how we learn, and how best to develop your child’s math skills.

## 1 Babies’ spatial reasoning predicts later math skills.

Stella Lourenco, a psychologist from Emory University conducted a study showing that babies with a stronger interest in a video stream of mirrored images went on to have greater mathematical skill at age four than those with less interest.

This may be why some people seem to have a natural aptitude for math, while others find it difficult. The good news is that spatial reasoning can improve with training. Lourenco suggests that an increased focus on this area in early math education could be helpful.

**Action Point: **Provide opportunities to develop spatial skills. Traditional shape sorters, puzzles, and stacking toys are ideal for this. Also, try some of my Short and Sweet Preschool Math Activities.

## 2 Math difficulties may reflect problems in a crucial learning system in the brain.

Procedural memory governs our mastery of non-conscious skills, things like driving. In this research, Tanya M. Evans PhD shows that procedural memory is also important in developing math ability. She suggests that problems with underlying brain structure could be at the root of math difficulties.

**Action Point: **Storytelling can be a great way to support the development of procedural memory. The structure helps children to remember what comes next, setting them in good stead for math concepts later on.

## 3 Parents’ math skills ‘rub off’ on their children.

A recent University of Pittsburgh study shows that we transfer our math skills to our children. Math education researchers found that a child’s performance in standardised tests could be predicted by looking at a parent’s performance in similar examinations.

**Action Point: **Your understanding is key to developing your child’s understanding. If you’re not confident in your own abilities, try Khan Academy or a similar programme to boost your performance in the basics.

## 4 Math and me: Children who identify with math get higher scores.

Self-talk influences our performance throughout life. Math is no different. Dario Cvencek’s study shows that performance in math tests links to stereotypes. This in turn determines how children think of themselves as math learners. For example, girls who subscribe to the theory that ‘math is for boys’ will tend to have weaker mathematical ability.

Researchers measured explicit and subconscious beliefs in children through a range of tests. They then monitored their results in standardised tests at the end of the school year. They found that implicit, subconscious beliefs affected math scores while explicit beliefs did not.

**Action Point: **Cvencek says, “If we can boost children’s math self-concepts early in development, this may also help boost their actual math achievement and interest in the discipline.”

## 4 Watching the brain do math.

Using MRI technology, scientists at Carnegie Mellon University have been able to see what’s happening in the brain while students are solving maths problems. They identified four distinct stages of the thought process: encoding, planning, solving and responding. Using MRI, they analysed how long respondents spent on each stage of the process.

**Action Point: **Professor John Anderson hopes that his research will eventually lead to improvements in classroom instruction.

## 5 The brain performs feats of math to make sense of the world.

The orbitofrontal cortex, just behind the eyes, carries out a constant stream of calculations and computations. All this without us being consciously aware of what’s happening. This process shapes our behaviour and reactions to situations. Using a safari park simulation, researchers from Princeton University demonstrated that people could accurately decide which area of the virtual park a specific group of animals had come from, based on their previous experience in the game.

This ability would have been important to our ancestors’ daily survival, and it’s just as crucial for us today. Even those without confidence in their math skills can take heart from the fact that our brains have an innate ability to conduct complex mathematical computations.

## 6 Finger tracing can lift student performance in math.

Getting young children to trace letters and numbers with their fingers is a standard part of early childhood education. Recent research by Dr Paul Ginns suggests that this benefit extends to other areas as well, specifically, solving math problems.

A survey of children aged 9-16 in Sydney showed that using the index finger to trace over important elements of algebra and geometry problems helped to improve their skill in solving those problems.

**Action Point: **If you have young children, you probably already encourage them to trace letters and numbers. Try to find ways to maintain that habit as they get older. One suggestion is to let them see you modelling the behaviour as you try to figure out measurements for DIY or craft projects.

## 7 Improving math in sixth graders.

Marije Fagginger Auer’s research shows that “children can benefit from writing down their calculations, especially the more vulnerable group with lower ability”. Current trends lean towards a heavy focus on mental strategies that don’t require children to ‘show their workings’. This research found that a written process of working out the solution resulted in a higher proportion of correct answers, although this took more time.

**Action Point: **The results of this math education research will be used to improve teacher training programmes. Meanwhile, it’s easy to encourage children to write down their process for answering questions. This will work especially well in areas they find more challenging.

## 8 Math study shows our brains are far more adaptable than we know.

This fascinating research shows that blind people have the same innate numerical reasoning abilities as sighted people. It was previously thought that the basic number sense present in humans and animals was related purely to sight. This study found that, in blind people, the visual cortex plays an important role in numerical reasoning.

Co-author of the study, Marina Bedny says that the findings suggest that the brain as a whole is far more adaptable than previously believed. “If we can make the visual cortex do math, in principle, we can make any part of the brain do anything.”

## 9 Simple numbers game seems to make kids better at math.

Games are a great way to boost math learning, we know that already. It’s also been known for a while that a highly developed sense of number in infancy can predict later math success. Johns Hopkins University researchers have taken this a step further with a study that suggests that games can bolster an innate sense of mathematical awareness.

Children were given a game to play on a tablet, where they had to decide whether there were more blue or yellow spots on the screen at one time. This had to be done quickly, without counting. Testing after the dots game found that those children who played the ‘proper’ version of the game (with questions progressing from easiest to hardest) performed much better.

**Action Point: **This study shows that even a small investment of time can pay dividends. It is well worth adding a few number games and activities to your days.

## 10 Online gaming can boost school scores.

Research from RMIT University, Melbourne, shows that playing video games can sharpen teenagers’ math skills, while Facebook and other social networking sites can dull them. Associate Professor Alberto Posso said, “Students who play online games almost every day score 15 points above the average in maths and 17 points above the average in science.”

**Action Point: **One recommendation from this study is that teachers should try to incorporate popular video games into their classes, providing that they’re not violent games.

## 11 Tutoring relieves math anxiety, changes fear circuits in children.

This research has found that one-to-one tutoring can not only improve math ability but also treat math anxiety itself. Using fMRI scans on children with high math anxiety, researchers showed that, after an eight-week tutoring programme, the brain’s fear circuits and amygdala were no longer activated by exposure to maths.

**Action Point: **If your child suffers from anxiety around math work, and you’ve been wondering whether a private tutor might help, maybe this is the confirmation you need.

It’s interesting to read math education research, especially when it backs up what you already know. You’ll find plenty of math resources here at Maths Insider to help you encourage your children as they grow their math abilities. I especially love reading research into how very young children learn. It’s fascinating to understand the science behind the things that most of us do instinctively.