Monday, June 6, 2011

This is Your 3rd Grader's Brain on Math

We continue to be amazed by what our colleagues in the field of neuroimaging can teach us about how children think and learn. A new study by Stanford University School of Medicine researcher Vinod Menon, Ph.D. and his colleagues reveals substantial differences between how children in second grade and those in third grade solve math problems. 

The researchers used functional MRI (fMRI) scans to look at the brains of 90 children who had just completed 2nd or 3rd grade. While the studies were conducted, the children worked on simple or more complex addition problems. The studies revealed that while the 2nd grade children's brains showed no real differences when they worked on hard or easy problems, the students who had completed 3rd grade had significantly different brain activation when working on the more difficult problems than when they worked on the simpler ones. The third graders showed more activity in two brain areas in particular while working on the more complex problems: the areas for vision and for working memory. 

Of course, seeing these differences in brain function and determining how these findings can or should impact how children are taught, is key to the field of Mind, Brain, and Education. Imaging researchers cannot yet determine whether the observed changes are a result of normal brain development from ages 7 through 9 (the age span of the children studied) or if they are the result of how the children are taught mathematics. They also cannot determine how these findings should be used by classroom teachers. What should a math lesson look like when we know how (and in what area of the brain) students process what they are learning? And how do we tell which students will do best in math in the long run? 

Although there is much missing from these findings, they are a terrific example of how our knowledge of learning and thinking is constantly expanding, and how collaboration among researchers, clinicians, and educators is needed to translate the latest scientific findings into classroom and clinical practices.

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