Photo courtesy of woodleywonderworks.

All summer long, we’ve seen some pretty amazing research on math ability and education.  We’ve been told that understanding geometric concepts may be innate and that elementary-aged students with a good sense of numeracy do better in math by the 5th grade.  And yesterday news of another study hit the internet.

According to the headlines, we were born either good or bad at math.  At least that’s how this study is being interpreted by bloggers and news outlets.  Except that’s not necessarily what the study concludes.

This makes me mad.  Really mad.  I have not read the full study, but nothing in the abstract–or even the stories and blog posts about this study–suggests that people are born with or without math ability.  Instead, it seems that the cheeky headlines were just too good to pass up.

Here’s what the study author, post-doctoral student Melissa Libertus, does say:

The relationship between ‘number sense’ and math ability is important and intriguing because we believe that ‘number sense’ is universal, whereas math ability has been thought to be highly dependent on culture and language and takes many years to learn… Many questions remain and there is much we still have to learn about this.

And here’s the nitty gritty on the study itself.  A group of 200 children, with an average age of 4 years old, was given a number sense test. (You can take the exact same test here).  These children were then asked to perform a variety of age-appropriate math tasks, including counting, reading numbers and computations.  The results make a lot of sense: children who performed well on the number sense test did better on the math tests.[pullquote]No one says that we’re born good or bad at reading.  We’re all expected to learn to read–and read well. So why do we say that about math?[/pullquote]

But the results seem to be misrepresented by media and others.  These kids were selected precisely because they haven’t had any formal math education.  They’re preschoolers.  So, according to many news reports, kids are either born with number sense or get it from formal education.


If you had a child in the last 10 or 15 years–or know someone who has–you are probably familiar with the big, big push for early literacy. Parents are encouraged to read to their kids, even when they’re babies, which research has shown helps the children develop age-appropriate literacy skills. In fact, kids who have had access to pre-reading experiences as infants, toddlers and preschoolers do much better with reading in elementary school.  (This is one of the tenets of Head Start programs around the country.)

No one says that we’re born good or bad at reading.  We’re all expected to learn to read–and read well. So why do we say that about math?

Just like the researcher, I think this study raises more questions.  And here’s the really big one: What can parents do to boost their kids’ numeracy before formal education begins? (I actually wrote about this earlier this week.)

I still maintain that we are born with an innate understanding of math–just like we’re born knowing something about language.  But without stimulating this understanding, kids can fall behind their peers or at least not reach their full potential.  We read to little children so that they can learn to read on their own.  And we should be doing something similar with kids so that they can do math.

A friend and fellow math blogger, Bon Crowder has launched an amazing program she’s calling Count 10, Read 10. It’s a simple idea: Parents should spend 10 minutes each day reading to their young kids and 10 minutes doing some sort of math with them.  But nobody is saying flash cards, worksheets or chalkboards are necessary.  The trick is to sneak the math into everyday activities, which can be as simple as counting the steps your new walker takes.

So here’s what I think happened with the news reports of this study: reporters, editors and bloggers simply tapped into their own misconceptions about math–and even their own math anxiety–and distorted the message.  For many people, it’s a “fact” that some people are just naturally bad at math.  I hope you’ll help me challenge that notion.

Meanwhile, be careful what you read.

P.S. A great math educator, David Wees has also chimed in on this topic, and shares–more eloquently–some of the same concerns I have.  Read it!

So what do you think? Are people born good or bad at math? Can parents help develop numeracy in their children?  How?  Share your ideas in the comments section.