Everyone is a Math Person

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For one reason or another, it has become acceptable for kids to say that “I’m not a math person,” as if some babies emerge from the womb with a pi-shaped birthmark on their ankle, while others don’t.

Sure, some kids find math harder than others but those who struggle initially and make mistakes are far more likely to gain knowledge from them. Recent research has found proof that kids learn from their errors, so much so that their brain changes.

“We now know that when you make a mistake in math, your brain grows,” Jo Boaler, one of the leading experts on math anxiety, said.

Her information is from a study where researchers examined students performing math tests while they were under an MRI.

In the study, neuroscientists monitored the synapses of the students undertaking the tests. They found that a synapse fired if the student made a mistake, regardless of whether the student was aware of their mistake or not. However, if the student recognized their error, a second synapse was fired.

“Your brain grows when you make a mistake, even if you’re not aware of it because it’s a time when your brain is struggling,” Boaler said. “It’s the most important time for our brains.”

Interestingly, if the thought was revisited the synapse firing sparked a new brain pathway and if the thought was forgotten the synapse was washed away.

Even children with genuine math learning disabilities can alter the way their brain absorbs numbers. A separate study also scanned children’s brains while they were undertaking math problems. In this case, the researchers found that different areas of the brain were lighting up while they were working on math.

The authors of the study then tutored the children for eight weeks, but they used a variety of different methods to help them visualise and discuss math problems. After the eight-week period ended the kids in the study had their brains scanned and voila, their brains looked identical to those children who did not have a math learning disability.

So math person or not. Most children can be good at math; they just have to be taught the right way.

Marina Gomer is a journalist and mother of one.  She lives with her family in Sydney, Australia.