JOPLIN, Mo. —
A recent test shows that humans have a natural sense for numbers. The sense improves with schooling, declines with age and ultimately indicates a person’s general math skills.
That means parents have even more reason to keep their kids focused on formulas, functions and fractions. And they can sharpen their own skills at the same time.
Researchers with Panamath, a group comprised of students and faculty at Johns Hopkins University, devised a test comprised of blue and yellow balls.
Subjects watched a computer screen that displayed a number of blue and yellow balls for less than a second. They were then asked to guess which color had the larger number of balls.
Performance in math, such as in math classes and on the math portion of the SAT, was also considered.
More than 10,000 subjects were tested, ranging in age from 11 to 85. The results of this test indicate that humans are good at quick estimations, and that leads to higher math skills.
“This may present important implications for how we teach the subject in school and our understanding for how we use mathematics in our daily lives,” according to information on the group’s website. “For so long, we have emphasized the complex, but we may do well in catering to the primitive as well.”
That means that there’s no harm in guesstimating, according to the group.
“We discovered that a child’s ability to quickly estimate how many things are in a group significantly predicts their performance in school mathematics all the way back to kindergarten,” Justin Halberda, one of the project’s lead researchers, told to the Washington Post in 2008. “It was very surprising.”
Halberda also said that even though a subject’s number sense peaks at 30, he can hone and improve his skill with daily activities. That, Halberda argues, means educational strategies can be used to improve individuals’ natural number sense.
The website encourages the test to be used as part of math curriculum in schools. Parents and children can take it at panamath.org.
Information from McClatchy News Service was used in this report.
Flexing math muscles
While guesstimating is good, it doesn’t hurt to practice the basics. Andrea Pawliczek, of Manhattan GMAT, said that mental math skills are incredibly helpful by saving time, getting a good estimate that eliminates bad answers and providing ballpark calculations that help catch major mistakes.
And daily life gives people plenty of opportunities to get some calculation calisthenics. Pawliczek recommended the following exercises during a trip to the grocery store (kids of varying skill levels can also join in):
- Keep a running total while filling your cart. Round prices to make the tally easier.
- Figure out unit costs. Don’t cheat by looking at the tag in the store, but use that to check your ballpark answer.
- Figure the amount of sales tax you’ll pay.
- Estimate the number of items in a display. You’ll get practice at a quick count, plus you’ll find yourself using multiplication as the displays get bigger.
Source: McClatchy News Service