Children's understanding of math not always equal

Posted: February 8, 2012 2:00 p.m.

Katherine Robinson researches children's understanding of arithmetic concepts.
Katherine Robinson researches children's understanding of arithmetic concepts. Photo: U of R Photography Dep't

One eight-year-old looks at the equation 2 + 27 - 27 and quickly sees a shortcut to solving it; his friend laboriously adds the first two numbers then subtracts the third.

Older children are presented with the equation 2 x 27 ÷ 27 and the same thing happens. One child quickly sees a shortcut; the other chooses to do it step-by-step.

These individual differences are fascinating to Dr. Katherine Robinson, a psychologist at Campion College, who focuses her research on the development of children's understanding of arithmetic concepts.

Her work shows that some children, even at a young age, are very flexible problem solvers and use shortcuts whenever possible.  Others, she says, insist on going step-by-step even if it takes longer.

”Knowing how children learn arithmetic concepts and understanding  individual differences is important at a time when school curricula is increasingly focused on teaching children to understand mathematics and promoting flexibility in problem-solving,” says Robinson.

Understanding how arithmetic operations relate to one another is key to learning algebra and calculus. In time, such research might be used in developing tools to promote understanding of arithmetic.

Attention to numeracy skills has lagged far behind literacy skills, emphasizes Robinson. Increasing attention on numeracy skills is important given that more than 50 per cent of Canadians have difficulty with basic tasks such as balancing a cheque book or completing an order form.

The project Children's Understanding of Arithmetic Concepts: Individual Differences and Flexibility of Conceptually-based Solution Strategies is funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Campion College and the University of Regina.