Babies are Born with Number
Donald Barnhouse on 0 Months To 5 Years, 0 To 12 Months, 12 Months To 5 Years, Benefits Of Early Learning, Nurture The Love To Learn

“I’ve always hated Math!”

I’m sure you have heard people say that, but it is not really true. The truth is that all babies are born with immense capabilities for dealing with the problems that have been labeled “mathematics.”

All babies have a basic number sense.

All babies know the difference between equal, greater than, and less than. Aristotle put it into words, and is famed for his “Law of Trichotomy,” but all babies are born understanding it.

In fact, every animal that has ever been tested has been found to have some kind of number sense, including chimps, dogs, pigeons, and even rats.
Each of us, every day, uses that sense for deciding which line in the supermarket is shorter, or which train car is less crowded. Most of the people who have been in control of developing math curricula have not recognized the importance of this sense in learning “school math.” They have generally said there is a completely separate math sense, linked to language, which operates when we face algebra or the multiplication table.

At The Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential, the pioneering studies in child brain development led to a different conclusion. Glenn Doman, the founder, led teams of researchers into the Xingu territories of Brasil Centrale, the Kalahari Desert of South Africa, and to the Inuit families Kotzebu, Alaska. Among the many breakthrough conclusions that flowed from this research was the idea that these two brain functions must be connected. It was a revolutionary conclusion, one that even now, 40 years later, is being hailed as “stunning.”

It was the foundation for The Institutes program for teaching your baby math. Babies are shown cards with quantities of bright red dots on them, on the assumption that they know how many dots there are. Since they do not yet know the name for the quantity, mothers call out the name as they show the card.

Mothers say “four” or “quatre” or “arba,” depending on whether they live in England or France or Israel. The baby knows the math; he learns the language. He knows the quantity through his number recognition ability; he learns the name for the number.

Researchers in the world outside The Institutes have been slow to understand how the infant brain works with number.

One group studying children in the rain forest of the Amazon had declared that children have to learn the words for numbers before they can do any exact number tasks.

A more recent study, done with Australian Aboriginal children, found that although they had very few words for numbers in their language, they had considerable ability in some rather complex tasks involving numbers, ability that matched that of children whose mother tongue was loaded with number words.

The study leader, a British specialist in cognitive neuroscience, said that the work of his group shows that babies are “born with the ability to see the world numerically just as we’re born to see the world in color.”

Our math program was built on the belief that quantity recognition and calculating ability are connected. It starts with a program designed to expand the quantity recognition ability with the Dot Cards, and then uses the cards to build on the inborn number sense in ways that are designed to prepare children for the kind of math that is taught in schools.

More than 20 years ago, we found a kindred spirit in William Johntz, founder of Project SEED. He was known for saying, “The true intellectuals in our society are the children; adult genius is just the part of childhood that is retained.”

The school districts that worked with Johntz discovered that advanced mathematical concepts could be taught to children from even the most deprived backgrounds, in the earliest years of school.

Now the world is catching up with his ideas, and with what we have been using and teaching for decades, and we are delighted.

The September 8, 2008, issue of the journal Nature reported on a study of 64 students 14 years old, a study that measured how well developed their number sense was and compared that to their performance in school math.

They started by showing computer screens with numbers of blue and yellow dots, and asking the teenagers whether there were more yellow dots or more blue dots. It was easy when the difference between the numbers was large, of course, but then they made the numbers larger, and the differences smaller, to test how well the teens could use the “basic number sense” to estimate the quantities.

“We discovered that a child’s ability to quickly estimate how many things are in a group significantly predicts their performance in school mathematics all the way back to kindergarten,” said Dr. Justin Halberda of Johns Hopkins University, who led the study. “It was very surprising.”

Surprising? One powerfully placed expert put it much more strongly. “The link between math achievement and number sense is really stunning. The potential here could be very important.” Those are the words of Dr. Peggy McCardle of the National Institutes of Health, the body that provided the money for the research.

“To me it’s mind blowing,” said Dr. Halberda. “While both abilities deal with numbers, they deal with numbers in two very different ways. Before this, all indications were they were separate systems.”

All indications, that is, except the experience of the thousands of mothers who have used the “Dots Program” that is the starting point of what The Institutes recommends for teaching your baby math. As it so often happens, the mothers have been ahead of most of the academics.

When the Washington Post saw the article in Nature, they went to interview Dr. Halberda. The quotations above are from that interview. It concluded with a peek into the future. Dr. Halberda said he has already started a study of three-year-olds, aimed at discovering whether their “number sense” would predict their performance in school math.

His conclusion was a note of “hope” that we find ironic. He said he wondered whether there might be “a way to boost a child’s number sense, and whether doing so might help him learn math.” The irony is that the boosting has been underway for decades, and the people who have had control of educating math teachers have closed their eyes to it.

“It’s an exciting possibility,” said Dr. Halberda. What would really be exciting is an opening of the minds in the academic world to the clinical results of 50 years of brain research at The Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential.

We know how busy parents are but if you have a question about your child take a minute and write to us. We love to hear from our parents and help them whenever we can.


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