Coefficient. Distributive property. Independent variable. If you get flustered by these terms — or for that matter, any others from high school algebra class — you might want to ask a kindergartner for tips.
In a somewhat shocking study from Johns Hopkins University, researchers found that young children have a natural instinct for math. To test the algebraic skills of a group of 5-year-old children who were barely able to count (much less solve for X or Y), the researchers introduced the concept of variables using toys — fuzzy puppets named Gator and Cheetah, colorful cups, and buttons. Results showed that many of the children were able to tap into their intuitive mathematical skills and solve questions for missing quantities — a basic concept of algebra (More details of the study can be seen in the YouTube video above or read here.)
“What was in the cup was the X and Y variable, and children nailed it,” said Lisa Feigenson, director of Johns Hopkins Laboratory for Child Development, in a press release. “Gator’s cup was the X variable and Cheetah’s cup was the Y variable. We found out that young children are very, very good at this. It appears that they are harnessing their gut level number sense to solve this task.”
When you strip away the fancy formulas and rote memorization and add colorful toys, the basics of algebra simply boil down to problem solving. And while these 5-year-old kids aren’t exactly solving complex formal equations, the results suggest that we could introduce these more “advanced” mathematical skills in early education so kids don’t get discouraged with learning math as they get older.
“So one of the exciting future directions for this research is to ask whether telling teachers that children have this gut level ability — long before they master the symbols — might help in encouraging students to harness these skills,” Feigenson said. “Teachers may be able to help children master these kind of computations earlier, and more easily, giving them a wedge into the system.”
Sounds like adding this to an elementary-school curriculum could help reduce the number of math haters.