Understanding how the brain processes maths learning

by Francesca Gottschalk
Consultant, Directorate for Education and Skills, OECD

Numbers are universal and constantly confronting us in daily life. In fact, they are so omnipresent that most of us perform basic mathematical calculations every single day without even realising it – when we glance at the clock, count change for a morning coffee, or even when we check the calendar to plan the weeks ahead.

It is, therefore, no surprise that student performance in maths is not only a key indicator for potential academic achievement, but also of future employability and overall participation in our “knowledge economy” society. Without the ability to make sense of the numbers that surround us, one would be completely lost in our modern world (even with a smartphone in hand!).

The question of how we actually learn maths and whether everyone has the ability to do so is thus a crucial one and should be of interest to parents, teachers and policy-makers alike. A new Education Working Paper entitled “The Neuroscience of Mathematical Cognition and Learning” explores the development of numerical cognition and explains that numeracy is actually an innate skill, inherent in humans from birth and further enhanced through formal education. Research indicates that babies as young as one day old are able to judge whether different quantities of objects are equal or not, and by the age of six months, infants often have the ability to discriminate up to three or four objects. It is then through schooling that children learn basic numerical principles –  for example addition and subtraction tables – and the more their ability to process these becomes automatic, the more they are able to devote brain resources (such as attention and working memory) to more complex numerical tasks.

Another way in which we can see the development of innate numeracy skills is through language, as language and maths learning go hand in hand. In literate cultures, number symbols and counting are integral for learning more complicated maths functions that go beyond approximation and simple counting. Illiterate cultures have also developed various trading and counting systems, allowing them to quantify objects and carry out basic maths operations. French researcher Pierre Pica, who spent time examining Amazonian groups, reported that although these groups are illiterate and cannot count, they still exhibit basic trading and approximation systems (illustrated through their daily transactions). This suggests the universality of basic maths systems in the human brain and the importance of the development in tandem of advanced maths and literacy skills. In order to effectively perform arithmetic operations and subsequently learn more complex functions, we need to have culturally transmissible and understood number symbols, which presuppose literacy within a population.

If our numerical abilities are innate, and literacy rates across OECD countries are relatively high, why then are there so many people who struggle with maths? The answer lies in the complexity of learning more advanced maths, which involves many regions of the brain. While it may seem that learning addition and subtraction tables should be a breeze for many students, when we start looking at the complicated processes involved in these different systems, we can understand that disruptions in these pathways can have huge impacts on learning abilities. We can see these effects, for example, in students with developmental dyscalculia (DD) or maths anxiety. In DD, it is thought that there is a deficient level of connectivity between various brain regions, whereas maths anxiety involves a number of cognitive processes such as emotion regulation and attitudinal factors that can hinder maths performance and learning. For example, results to questions about anxiety towards mathematics in the 2012 cycle of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) showed that students in low-performing countries tended to report higher levels of anxiety towards maths in comparison to countries scoring above the OECD average.

What does this mean for the teaching of maths in schools? This paper highlights the fact that there are neither “good” nor “bad” math learners. While there is the potential for students to suffer from various missteps in the maths path, the innate ability for humans to understand numbers and gain numerical skills shows promise even for those students who struggle to grasp basic mathematical concepts, and this is encouraging. For example, the new PISA report, Equations and Inequalities: Making Mathematics Accessible to All”, illustrates how the use of innovative teaching methods can foster students’ motivation to overcome barriers in maths learning. If teachers and policy-makers better understand how maths learning occurs in the brain, we can start to uncover and implement new strategies to assist students in need, helping them keep their maths path as clear as possible.

Working paper No. 136: The Neuroscience of Mathematical Cognition and Learning, by Chung Yen Looi, Jacqueline Thompson, Beatrix Krause, and Roi Cohen Kadosh
Understanding the Brain: The Birth of a Learning Science
Equations and Inequalities: Making Mathematics Accessible to All
Photo credit: Book shelf in form of head on formulas backgrounds @Shutterstock

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