08 June 2011

When Is a Child's Brain Ready for Maths?

The newest study examined 90 children recruited from a variety of schools. Half had just completed second grade; the other half had just completed third grade. All children had normal intelligence and had math reasoning scores between the 25th and 98th percentile. On average, the third-graders were one year older than the second-graders and had significantly better math-reasoning skills.

...The scientists found that children in third grade showed much more differentiated brain responses between complex and simple problems. They found significant change in the responses of two key regions of the brain to the different types of addition problems.Greater responses to complex addition problems were seen in third-graders’ brains in both the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a brain area responsible for manipulating information in working memory, and in the intraparietal sulcus, a posterior brain region essential for representing numerical quantity. _Vinod Menon et al described in Physorg
MyNextBrain_Taken from Brain Age PDF

It appears that significant changes in brain function occur in children sometime between grades 2 and 3, measured by fMRI. At least some of these changes in brain activity appear to allow more sophisticated maths reasoning in children.
Compared to 2nd graders, 3rd graders showed greater activity in dorsal stream parietal areas right SPL, IPS and angular gyrus (AG) as well as ventral visual stream areas bilateral lingual gyrus (LG), right lateral occipital cortex (LOC) and right parahippocampal gyrus (PHG). Significant differences were also observed in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), with 3rd graders showing greater activation in left dorsal lateral PFC (dlPFC) and greater deactivation in the ventral medial PFC (vmPFC). Third graders also showed greater functional connectivity between the left dlPFC and multiple posterior brain areas, with larger differences in dorsal stream parietal areas SPL and AG, compared to ventral stream visual areas LG, LOC and PHG. No such between-grade differences were observed in functional connectivity between the vmPFC and posterior brain regions. These results suggest that even the narrow one-year interval spanning grades 2 and 3 is characterized by significant arithmetic task-related changes in brain response and connectivity, and argue that pooling data across wide age ranges and grades can miss important neurodevelopmental changes. _Abstract Menon et al via ScienceDirect
It is likely that another similar maths-facilitating change occurs during puberty, at least partially triggered by testosterone surge. Understanding these age specific developmental brain changes is critical to the study of group differences and the efficacy of interventions in maths learning.

Abstract from an earlier collaboration between David Geary and Vinod Menon dealing with counting and retrieval strategies in early maths learning.

Modern high tech societies are based upon technologies which require sophisticated maths skills. Various commercial methods from maths learning have been developed in an attempt to assure a plentiful supply of talent for engineering and science training programs of the future. Most of these programs fail to compensate for the huge weaknesses of the government educational system as a whole, which limits their usefulness.

Music learning is another activity which displays a developmental learning window in childhood, at least for highly proficient musical skills and abilities. Not coincidentally, musical skills and math skills overlap significantly. This interesting study looks at brain networks in music, and how they come into play during everyday "segmentation of the neural stream." In other words, good and timely early childhood training in language, maths, music -- and probably many other skills not properly delineated -- can make a crucial difference in the skillful execution of ordinary moment to moment thinking processes.

This page links to a sophisticated analysis (PDF Thesis Download 6MB) of fMRI analysis of mental patterns from a whole-brain spatio-temporal perspective. Only for those most curious.

Modern educators and neuroscientists do not actually understand how children learn, nor do they know the best ways of assisting children in the crucial learning processes. In fact, modern educational practises are so infused with politicised dogma and indoctrination, that a mainstream education is apt to do as much harm as good in the average student.

If you are the parent of a young or adolescent child, DO NOT LEAVE your child's education up to the system. To you, your child is your life. To the system, your child is a statistic, prone to currents of political favouritism and neglect.

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Blogger PRCalDude said...

"It is likely that another similar maths-facilitating change occurs during puberty, at least partially triggered by testosterone surge. Understanding these age specific developmental brain changes is critical to the study of group differences and the efficacy of interventions in maths learning."

Though the groups that are the best at math (Japanese, etc) and highest IQ tend to be the lowest in testosterone.

I think the idea of a developmental window during childhood has always been obvious. Children are simply more curious and open to trying new things. I'm not sure what neuroscience has added to this time-tested observation.

The fMRI of a simple problem done quickly is very interesting though. Kumon teaches children to do math problems very quickly through lots of repitition and timed-drills (at least they used to). There is no better method for learning math that I know of.

Wednesday, 08 June, 2011  
Blogger al fin said...

PRCD: These are very interesting and important ideas.

Testosterone surge as a trigger does not require high levels. Just a surge of appreciably higher levels than previously, over a given period of time. That principle applies to males, females, and any ethnicity.

The developmental window idea is far more specific than simply "during childhood." Different windows occur at specific times for different mental abilities. Understanding how it works is crucial for competent educational methods (unlike those of modern government schools which tend to deny biological influences on cognition altogether).

The Kumon method sounds similar to the concept of "overtraining." The best performers in tight situations are those who were overtrained.

Wednesday, 08 June, 2011  
Blogger Hell_Is_Like_Newark said...

This article strikes a cord with me. I matured at a very slow rate. At age 15, I was stuck in the body of a 12 year old. I was also terrible at math.

After age 18 though, my body finally started to catch up (I didn't stop growing until age 19 and didn't have to shave daily until age 24) I noticed my mathematical skills greatly improved. At 18, I was also out of the public school into a private school, which was a massive improvement in the quality of instruction I received. But I wonder, if there was a physical component tied to hormones / brain function?

Wednesday, 08 June, 2011  
Blogger Ene said...

These are very interesting questions. Even now when I still don't have children I'm often thinking about right approaches how to start learning math at early age.
That's definitely one field where I intend to take the education in my own hands.
With talent and proper training talented children at age of 12 can become chess grandmasters or virtuoso pianists on the other hand at the age of 12 in schools they learn fractions and decimal numbers, which is a joke for a child with high potential.
I see no reason why a very talented 12 year old couldn't do advanced calculus, group theory or quantum field theory if his/hers colleagues can become so good in chess and music. People that don't play chess don't understand what does it mean to become a chess grandmaster, it's much easier to get a PhD in physics for example. (Just to make things clear, I'm a physicist and an amateur chess player, not the other way around :) )
Teachers of chess and music have empirical knowledge how to maximize results from child's talent and wiliness to work, everything that classic pedagogy lacks.
To make a relevant contribution in hard sciences in the future will require an early training of talented kids and we better find the ways how to do it in systematic and quality way.

Wednesday, 08 June, 2011  

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