How schoolchildren learn to calculate

A change in the brain helps children to switch to more effective treatment methods

At the beginning, children still count additions - like with an abacus. © freeimages
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From counting to remembering: Schoolchildren undergo a gradual change in math learning: First, they count down simple math tasks on their fingers, and later they automatically think of the result. Behind this change of strategy is also a conversion in the brain, as US researchers now prove. This could also explain why some children have more problems with arithmetic than others, according to the researchers in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

Primary education is a critical phase for learning: during this time, children acquire basic skills and knowledge in arithmetic, writing and reading, but also in solving social problems. In the process, schoolchildren use other strategies as they grow older. At first, cumbersome learning paths predominate, in which the solution is internally followed step by step. In arithmetic, for example, the children count additions or subtractions on their fingers, while reading words are spelled out and then assembled into a complete word.

"With the maturation of problem-solving skills, the frequency of such ineffective procedures is slowly decreasing and more memory-based strategies are being used, " said Shaozheng Qin of Stanford University School of Medicine and his colleagues. The children then no longer need to understand the results of simple bills or words, but remember them.

Calculating in the brain scanner

However, how this switching of the learning strategy works and what is changing in the brain has not been clear so far. To find out, Qin and his colleagues had 28 schoolchildren between the ages of seven and nine carry out simple one-digit additions and pronounce the answer aloud. After each task, the researchers asked them how they had solved the bill - by counting them internally or simply by asking the right answer.

Schoolchild SXC

In a second exercise part, the scientists recorded the brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), while the children solved additions or indicated equations for the equations, whether the result of the addition was correct or not was wrong. These experiments repeated the researchers with the same children again a good year later. display

More remember, less counting

As it turned out, a lot changed in the calculation of the children this year: those who still counted the sums in their minds when they were seven or eight years old could now more frequently use the results from memory recall. "In line with our hypothesis, memory-based strategies are increasing, counting is decreasing, " the researchers report.

These changes in arithmetic abilities were also reflected in brain activity: The hippocampus was more active in the older children during arithmetic, as the brain scans showed. This brain area makes common theories for transforming the newly learned into lasting memories and places new information into existing knowledge.

Connections change

And something else had changed after a year in the children's brains: the hippocampus was now more and more connected to the cerebral cortex, and thus to the areas of the mind, those of adults play while solving mathematical tasks. In the course of childhood, it is not only the way in which mathematical tasks are solved that changes - the brain also changes its structures that are important for learning.

"Our results show that switching from counting to memory-based strategies also results in functional reorganization of the hippocampal neocortex connections, " the researchers conclude. And: the earlier and more complete this switching takes place, the easier it is for children to do the arithmetic, and the better their performance in mathematics will be later, as the experiments showed.

Explanation also for the dyscalculia

These results may also explain why some children suffer from dyscalculia - a scourge of calculation: for them, the conversion of strategies does not work out completely or significantly delayed, such as Qin and explain his colleagues. However, this new insight into the processes of learning is not only important for mathematics: such a switching of strategies also takes place with other important abilities be it in reading and writing, or in logic Thinking or dealing with others.

Knowing about the changes that take place in the brain of children helps to understand how and why they learn over time how to tackle problems differently. (Nature Neuroscience, 2014; doi: 10.1038 / nn.3788)

(Nature, 18.08.2014 - NPO)