Do you remember the scene in the movie Rainman in which Dustin Hoffman, playing Ray, an autistic savant, instantaneously counts the number of toothpicks spilled on a restaurant floor by a waitress? “Two hundred forty-six total,” Ray intones. His brother, Charlie (played by Tom Cruise), asks the waitress how many toothpicks were in the box she’d just opened. “Two hundred and fifty,” she answers. Charlie smiles at Ray. “Pretty close,” he says. Then the flabbergasted waitress adds: “There’s four left in the box.”
The rest of us can’t estimate with anything close to Ray’s exactitude. But a new study suggests that by playing games that involve quickly guessing how many items are in a group of objects, children can help themselves become better at traditional math problems.
“We wanted to know whether thinking intuitively about numbers, such as approximating and comparing sets without counting, helps in actually doing math,” said University of Illinois psychology professor Daniel Hyde in a report on the the UI website. The UI article continues:
“Hyde and his coauthors report that practicing this kind of simple, instinctive numerical exercise can improve children’s ability to solve math problems. The researchers asked first-graders to practice tasks that required them to approximate, or roughly evaluate the number of objects in a set without counting them. Other children did tasks such as comparing the brightness of two objects or adding the lengths of lines.
Children who practiced evaluating the number of objects performed better on arithmetic tests immediately afterward than did their counterparts who evaluated other qualities of objects, Hyde said. ‘These results showed that brief practice with tasks requiring children to guess or intuit the number of objects actually improved their arithmetic test performance,’ he said.”
Other research has shown that children who are better at intuitive number tasks also have higher math grades and perform better on math tests—but Hyde’s study first to provide a causal link. Their research shows that practice on intuitive number tasks actually causes better math performance in children. Hyde describes the improvements the researchers saw:
“‘On easier problems, those who practiced engaging what we call their “intuitive sense of number” performed roughly 25 percent faster than children practicing a control task,’ Hyde said. ‘For more difficult problems, children engaging their intuitive sense of number scored roughly 15 percentage points higher than those practicing a control task. If this were a real quiz in school, these children would have scored about a letter grade and a half higher than those in the control conditions.’”
This seems like an easy way to engage children in thinking about numbers—just ask kids to estimate how many items are in a pile of paperclips, pennies—or toothpicks.