Kids Have an Instinct for Algebra—If They're Taught Correctly

Kids can learn abstract math with a wave of a hand.

Image: Goldin-Meadow Lab

Given the fact that computers do all our computing for us now, I suspected that people would’ve given up trying to teach kids math. But as it turns out you can’t turn everything over to an engineer-bot yet, as building and programming robots turns out to require quite a bit of mathematics. And two studies this week have uncovered that, taught correctly, children seem to have a predilection for algebra.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences found that preschoolers and kindergarteners could also do basic algebra, solving for a hidden variable that was hidden in either a stuffed gator or cheetah’s cup. It was a pretty cute study—these kids are pretty stoked when they get the questions right.

“These very young children, some of whom are just learning to count, and few of whom have even gone to school yet, are doing basic algebra and with little effort,” the study’s lead author Melissa Kibbe said. “They do it by using what we call their ‘Approximate Number System’: their gut-level, inborn sense of quantity and number.”

The Johns Hopkins study isnt alone. Researchers at the University of Chicago discovered that children could better extrapolate and generalize principles if they were taught to use abstract gestures while working on the problem.

The psychology researchers had 90 children learn through different types of physical interaction. One group of kids picked up magnetic number tiles and moved the tiles into place to uncover the missing number in an equation. Another group just mimed moving the number tiles, without actually touching them, and another group was taught use abstract gestures—making V’s with their fingers under two of the numbers, then pointing to the blank in the equation.

While kids in all three groups improved after the lesson, only the children in the gesture group were successful on the generalization problems.

“Our findings provide the first evidence that gesture not only supports learning a task at hand but, more importantly, leads to generalization beyond the task. Children appear to learn underlying principles from their actions only insofar as those actions can be interpreted symbolically,” said the study’s senior author Susan Goldin-Meadow .

Having physical components in learning has been linked with memory elsewhere. A new study from McGill University found that musicians who play a piece can remember it better than when they simply hear a piece—they can recognize changes to the melody when its played back. Hearing the music triggered a “simulated action” plan in the motor and premotor areas of the parietal cortex.

While the neurological mechanisms at play in memory, movement, and abstraction are still being studied, the parietal cortex is also known to play an important role in knowledge of numbers, their relations, and the approximate number system, mentioned in the Hopkins study.

So in addition to having implications for education—maybe to teach algebra to teenagers we need more stuffed animals?—there are also juicy neurological questions raised by these studies.

Which is to say, sorry, kids—math is going to be on the curriculum for the foreseeable future. For whatever its worth, you’re a natural at it; it just takes the right wave of your hand.