A recent study from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology aims to overthrow the long standing assumption that being good at most forms of math is an innate ability. The researchers found that if you want to be good at multiple types of mathematics, you need to practice them all since relying on one good math skill, say algebra, to perform tasks in another, say geometry, won’t render the same expected results. The study may change the way math is taught.
The traditional view is that being good at math is something you’re born with. It’s true, if you have an inclination for manipulating numbers, it will be easier for your to learn and become good at it. This is more of a driving passion, the researchers suggests, and true performance in the field comes from practice.
Learning math takes practice
Professor Hermundur Sigmundsson at Department of Psychology and colleagues tested the math skills of 70 Norwegian fifth graders, aged 10.5 years on average. Nine types of math tasks were tested, from normal addition and subtraction, both orally and in writing, to oral multiplication and understanding the clock and the calendar.
“Our study shows little correlation between (being good at) the nine different mathematical skills, Sigmundsson said. “For instance there is little correlation between being able to solve a normal addition in the form of ‘23 + 67’ and addition in the form of a word problem.”
The findings emphasize the idea that to be good at all types of math you need to practice them all – no shortcuts. “Some students will be good at geometry, but not so good at algebra,” Sigmundsson says. In this case, the children need to practice their algebra, since the skills they trained in geometry don’t help them compensate.
“At the same time this means there is hope for some students. Some just can’t be good at all types of math, but at least they can be good at geometry, for example,” he says.
Each set of skill, neurology tells us, creates and works with certain neural pathways that are specific to the task at hand, even though these tasks may be in the same family of tasks (mathematics). The football player who practices hitting the goal from 25 yards with a perfectly placed shot will become good at exactly this. But she is not necessarily good at tackling or reading the game.
“This is also supported by new insights in neurology. With practice you develop specific neural connections,” says Sigmundsson.
The results have been published inPsychological Reports.
H. Sigmundsson, R. C. J. Polman, and H. Lorås (2013) EXPLORING INDIVIDUAL DIFFERENCES IN CHILDREN’S MATHEMATICAL SKILLS: A CORRELATIONAL AND DIMENSIONAL APPROACH. Psychological Reports: Volume 113, Issue , pp. 23-30. doi: 10.2466/04.10.PR0.113x12z2